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If lines were to be drawn on a map from Cape Race, Newfoundland, down the east coast of the North American continent and into the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, they would coincide with perhaps the most congested sea lanes in the world. When the United States entered World War II, the industrial cities of the eastern seaboard were particularly vulnerable to the disruption of these lanes. Fuel was required to keep those cities from freezing during the winter, and most of that fuel was provided by ships hauling it from Curaçao and Aruba in the Netherlands West Indies, from Venezuelan oil fields, and from the Gulf of Mexico ports of Corpus Christi, Houston, and Port Arthur, Texas. The United States military was also vulnerable. The oil reserves of the United States were simply not large enough to meet the sustained, high demands of world conflict. To cut her supply lines along the Atlantic coast and to the south would be, in effect, to defeat the United States, to freeze much of her population, and force her out of the war. In January 1942, five German Type IX U-boats set forth to accomplish all that.
Although Admiral Karl Doenitz, commander of the German U-boat fleet, was surprised by Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into the war, he quickly improvised a plan for an attack across the Atlantic. Sensing a great opportunity, he proposed sending twelve U-boats to American waters, six of which were to be the new Type IXs, which had greater fuel and armaments than the standard Type VIIs. Doenitz called this operation Paukenschlag, the word meaning "drumroll." The admiral's bold plan, however, was turned down. TheMediterranean and Norwegian fronts, he was told, were of first priority for his U-boats, and not some risky adventure across the Atlantic. Doenitz was disappointed but not surprised by the denial. It was simply a continuation of the bureaucratic battle he had fought for what he considered to be the proper operation of his U-boats since the beginning of the war.
Admiral Doenitz was an intense, studious man who had spent much of the years after World War I planning a huge force of submarines that would lay waste to convoys in the Atlantic. But on the day Britain declared hostilities against Germany, the Kriegsmarine had in its inventory only twenty-two U-boats large enough to operate in the open ocean. Ordered to blockade the British Isles and pin down the Royal Navy, Doenitz knew that all he could actually do while waiting for a promised increase in the numbers of his U-boats was to inflict a few wounds here and there using "hit and run" tactics. Still, his fiercely loyal commanders were able to spring several surprises on the Royal Navy, the most spectacular being the sinking of the battleship Royal Oak inside the British fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow. This success, perhaps more than any other, was the one that established the U-boat myth of reckless daring and made a hero of the U-47's commander, Günther Prien. Doenitz did not mind the adulation given to one of his commanders. If it helped in his struggle to wage U-boat warfare and get more U-boats built, he minded nothing.
The first of what U-boat sailors would come to refer to as their "Happy Time" would be in the summer of 1940. The British had gone to the convoy system to defend their merchant ships as they brought vital supplies from the United States and Canada. This system had worked well during World War I and, it was assumed, would be just as effective in World War II, especially with the new ASDIC "pinging" equipment that would allow defending destroyers to locate intruding submarines. Doenitz, however, had studied the convoy system and thought that he had found a way to defeat it. His tactic was to send his U-boats out singly but with orders to immediately radio command headquarters the moment a convoy was sighted. When this was done, other U-boats would be routed into the area and ordered to wait until night, surface, and attack. Doenitz reasoned that ASDIC would not be able to locate the U-boats on the surface and that night would allow them to get in close without being spotted by lookouts. To the dismay of the Royal Navy, this simple tactic worked spectacularly. In June, 284,000 tons of shipping were sunk, followed by 196,000 in July, 268,000 in August, 295,000 in September, and a stunning 352,000 tons sent to the bottom of the ocean in October. This was the time of the U-boat aces, of Prien and Endrass and Kretschmer and Schepke. Still, despite all their swashbuckling successes, the U-boat commanders were never lone wolves. Doenitz had them all very much in control, requiring them to check in with him daily so that he could route them efficiently and effectively.
The "Happy Time" did not last long. For one thing, Doenitz still did not have very many U-boats available. For another, the British started to install radar on their ships and gradually learned to fight at night. Using carefully coordinated air and ship operations, the Royal Navy was soon able to reestablish control over the convoy routes and, by January 1941, had reduced U-boat sinkings to 127,000 tons for that month. Doenitz's response was to call for a fleet of bigger and faster submarines. He could knock the British out of the war, he was certain of it, if only his recommendations were followed. The German government considered his proposals but decided against them. More submarines, primarily the old Type VIIs, would be produced, but the focus of the war would remain on the ground and in the air.
Doenitz knew that tenacity counted as much in bureaucratic battles as anything. After the initial denial of his proposed American attack, he reviewed the ninety-one U-boats then operational. Thirty-three were in the dockyards for repairs and maintenance and twenty en route to or from operations. Thirty-three more were on battle station, twenty-three in the Mediterranean, six off Gibraltar, and four off Norway. He could not touch any of these. But there were five U-boats, fortunately the long-range Type IXs, that had no assignment and were ready to sail. Could these be used? Doenitz badgered his superiors again for Paukenschlag. He was granted his request but only on the condition that the U-boats be immediately recalled if required for the Norwegian campaign. Doenitz eagerly agreed and called in the commanders of the five Unterseeboote, briefed them, and wished them luck. He had no idea of the reception they would receive in American waters, but the commandersthe veterans Hardegen (U-123), Kals (U-130), Zapp (U-66), Bleichrodt (U-109), and Folkers (U-125)were supremely confident. Between December 16th and 25th, the five U-boats left their French ports to cross the Atlantic. To ensure surprise, Doenitz ordered them to keep out of sight between Newfoundland and the American east coast unless a worthwhile targetships of over 10,000 tonspresented itself. The operational area was to be the coast between the St. Lawrence and Cape Hatteras.
Despite Doenitz's caution, the United States was aware that the U-boats were probably coming. The moment they left occupied France, British agents warned London, which, in turn, passed on the information to Washington. Since the coast guard had come under the Department of the Navy's command early in 1941, the responsibility for the defense of the Atlantic coast had been given to 62-year-old Rear Admiral Adolphus Andrews, known to his friends as "Dolly." When this huge undertaking was given him, Admiral Andrews had already been on the active list for forty-one years, with a varied career that had made him one of the best-known flag officers in the navy. An '01 graduate of the Naval Academy, Andrews had, among many other assignments, been the commander of the presidential yacht Mayflower, the naval aide to President Coolidge, and the American representative to the Geneva Conference of 1927. A Texan, he liked to do everything on a grand scale. His large staff reflected his enthusiasm. They included Captain Thomas R. Kurtz (chief of staff), Captain S. B. Bunting (assistant chief of staff), Captain John T. G. Stapler (operations), Captains Harry E. Shoemaker and Stephan B. Robinson (convoy and routing), Captain Ralph Hungerford (antisubmarine warfare), Captain Henry M. Mullinnix (air), and Lieutenant Commander Harry H. Hess (submarine tracking). Before the war began, Admiral Andrews set up his headquarters in New York City, in the old Federal Building on 90 Church Street, and packed it with a communications center and plotting room from which he planned to manage American coastal defense. All he had to manage, however, were twenty ships, some of them no more than barges and the largest a 165-foot coast guard cutter, plus 103 obsolete aircraft, most of them down for repairs. This pitiful force was supposed to guard the First, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Naval Districtsover 1,500 miles of rugged coastline from the Canadian border to South Carolina!
Admiral Andrews hoped that the commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet, Admiral Ernest J. King, would eventually agree to his request for assistance from the rest of the navy. An entire fleet of battleships, cruisers, destroyers, aircraft carriers, and submarines operated out of Hampton Roads and Norfolk, Virginia. Admiral Andrews believed that those forces should be used in coastal defense, but King and his fleet admirals wanted to ensure that their ships were ready to do battle with the German surface fleet (at that time completely bottled up by the British) or be available to steam to the Pacific to fight the Japanese. In a complaint to King, Admiral Andrews pointed out that of the ships he had available, "...there is not a vessel...that an enemy submarine could not outdistance when operating on the surface. In most cases, the guns of these vessels would be outranged by those of the submarines." King told him to do what he could with what he had, so Andrews assigned his tiny floating force to patrols around important harbors and convinced the army to send planes from Mitchell Field and Langley Field on two daily sweeps over the ocean. He was aware that the army pilots had virtually no chance of spotting anything and, even if they did, would probably not be able to distinguish a German U-boat from an American submarine, but it was a beginning in what he hoped would be a continuing close cooperation between his command and the army air forces. The one concession made by Admiral King was to order fleet minelayers to mine the approaches to New York, Boston, and Portland harbors as well as the approaches to the Chesapeake Bay. Otherwise, Admiral Andrews was on his own.
According to the North Atlantic Naval Coastal Frontier War Diary, the first indication of the coming disaster began on 31 December 1941 with a dispatch from the First Naval District that a periscope had been spotted by fishing boats between Cushing and Ram Islands in Portland Channel. A week later, an army plane spotted a fleet of unidentified "destroyers and cruisers" 50 miles east of Cape May headed for the coast. No further word was received, and the fleet was written off as "probably fishermen." The next day, however, a "large, black submarine with a long conning tower and gun forward" was seen on the surface moving slowly northeast. It submerged when it was spotted by the plane. Admiral Andrews took this report seriously and asked for stepped-up surveillance. On the same day, 7 January 1942, the admiral received an intelligence report that "there are strong indications that 16 German submarines are proceeding to the area off the southeast coast of Newfoundland. The object of this operation is not understood." On the night of 11 January, the Cyclops, a large freighter, was sunk, apparently by torpedoes or mines about 300 miles off Cape Cod. Admiral Andrews rushed off to meet with Admiral King to again request assistance. King flatly turned him down. The navy would keep up routine patrols as always, but the bulk of the fleet would be kept ready for surface action. Frustrated, Andrews sent the army's First Bomber Command a memorandum that stated, "Submarines may be expected off our coast at any time. At least four are known to be about 300 miles east of Nantucket Light on 12 January, and are probably proceeding westward." On 14 January, Andrews's worst fears were confirmed with the report of a torpedo attack on the freighter Norness just 60 miles southeast of Montauk Point.
The U-boats had arrived.