Twelve Desperate Miles: The Epic World War II Voyage of the SS Contessa

Twelve Desperate Miles: The Epic World War II Voyage of the SS Contessa

by Tim Brady


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The true story of how a rusty New Orleans banana boat staffed with a most unlikely and diverse crew was drafted into service in WWII—and heroically succeeded in setting the stage for Patton's epic invasion of North Africa.

The largest amphibious invasion force ever to cross the Atlantic Ocean set sail from Virginia in November 1942 with the aim of capturing Casablanca and a crucial airfield northeast of the city. Unfortunately, the airfield was located a dozen miles up a twisting Morrocan river, too shallow for any ship in the entire Allied fleet. As the invasion neared, the War Department turned up the Contessa, a salt-caked Honduran-registered civilian freighter that had spent most of her career hauling bananas and honeymooners. 
   This unremarkable ship, crewed by seamen from twenty-six different nations, eighteen sailors pulled from the Norfolk County jail, and a French harbor pilot spirited out of Morroco by OSS agents, became the focus of the opening salvo of World War II. Too late to join the massive convoy sailing for Africa, the Contessa set out on her own through the U-boat-infested waters of the Atlantic to the shores of Morocco, where she faced her most daunting challenge: the twelve-mile voyage up the well-defended Sebou River, carrying an explosive cocktail of airplane fuel and nine hundred tons of bombs in her holds.
   Twelve Desperate Miles is a surprising and entertaining account of one of the great untold stories of the war.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307590381
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 04/23/2013
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 385,525
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Tim Brady writes frequently for History Channel Magazine. He lives with his family in St. Paul, Minnesota. 

Read an Excerpt




New York, June 1942

As much as any place in the country in late June 1942, World War II was being waged in New York Harbor. Fanned out on shorelines that stretched from Perth Amboy and Elizabeth in New Jersey to the Bronx and South Brooklyn in New York and thick along the southern end of Manhattan rested “docks, piers, and wharves of every conceivable size, condition, and state of repair,” all preparing ships for the duties of a nation at war. The bay was thick with vessels too. Scores lay anchored and waiting for their turn at the docks. Warships and merchant vessels, transports and tugs (up to 575 employed by the Port of New York) plied the waters of the upper bay while the Statue of Liberty looked silently on and the sounds of heavy machinery mixed with the deep blast of ships’ horns to echo around the basin.

More than three dozen shipyards, including the giant Navy Yard in Brooklyn, also rimmed the harbor. Destroyers, cruisers, and battleships from the U.S. Navy sat suspended in dry docks being feverishly overhauled, outfitted, repaired, and scrubbed. The flashing arcs of welding torches could be seen day and night, while the pounding echoes of hammers smashing against steel hulls reverberated around the bay. Scores of merchant vessels were in the process of conversion to defense-­capable ships by order of the War Shipping Administration (WSA). Other boats, commercial to pleasure craft, trawlers to yachts, were being turned into sub chasers mounted with three-­inch guns and loads of depth charges. Brand-new PT boats, the speedy little darlings of naval action in the Pacific, zipped around the harbor in test runs conducted from Bayonne, New Jersey, where they were being manufactured by the score.

The yards and docks were punctuated by skeletal derricks and cranes, radio antennae, conning towers, and ships’ masts of every size and description, all standing outlined against the skylines of Manhattan, Newark, and Brooklyn. Upwards of a thousand warehouses, set just back from the shorelines and capable, within the whole sweep of the harbor, of storing a combined forty million square feet of goods and matériel, thrummed with the comings and goings of railroad cars and trucks. Here is where the tools of war, the machinery, the weaponry, the dry goods and hardware, the canvas, cotton, and wool, the matches, batteries, boots, and cigarettes, arrived from the factories in the interior of the nation. Here they were stored, and here they were loaded onto those waiting ships, along with the young men who would use them.

Thousands of members of the army’s II Corps, the first large contingent of the long-­promised American invasion force, which was scheduled to sail to England at the end of the month, had arrived in New York in preparation for the trip and waited in Brooklyn to be shipped from Bush Terminal. They were far from the only military in the city: “90 day wonders,” the nickname given to college boys drawn from mostly dry lands all over the country, who were given three months to learn the ropes of a midshipman’s life in the U.S. Navy, were housed up at Columbia; army brass and navy officers in dress whites, overseeing the comings and goings in the city for the U.S. Department of War, took the best tables at the Copa; but thousands of sailors—­merchant marines, coast guard, and U.S. Navy—­had their own good times, wandering the streets of Manhattan, wondering what war would bring them even as they gawked skyward at the Empire State and Chrysler buildings and soaked in the neon lights of Broadway. Caps pushed back on their heads to reveal a hint of hairline, they took big, galumphing strides through the city, eyeing the young women of New York and being eyed in return, like the happy-­go-­lucky crooners in wartime movies yet to be made.

For all the excitement and anticipation in New York, however, few in the city slept peacefully. While it was apparent that the nation’s involvement in the war in Europe was about to begin in earnest, no one knew for sure where or when that action would start. For those millions here and across the country who were uneasy about what the war in Europe would bring (and who wasn’t?), the fact that New York was full of soldiers, sailors, ships, and the supplies of battle, standing on the brink of war but not yet in it, deepened the sense of anxiety, even as it gave them something akin to relief that the United States was about to engage the enemy.

Ever since the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, now more than seven months ago, there had been such a constant stream of bad news that many in New York and the rest of the country were demoralized. Just the day before—­on Father’s Day—­the guest pastor at Riverside Church had sermonized against the “spiritual defeatism” that seemed to be consuming the intellectual set on the Upper West Side. The fury and destructiveness of war in Europe and in the Pacific was so bad that a malaise had settled over many in the country. Would there ever be beauty and grace in the world again?

Dean Charles Gilkey of the University of Chicago Chapel tried to buck up the Riverside congregation by reminding them that Beethoven created some of his greatest music and Keats his greatest poetry dur- ing the darkest days of the Napoleonic Wars. The American Civil War produced Abraham Lincoln, he told them, adding: “The best things are so constantly in conflict with the worst things around us, that it is all the more important in bad times for every one of us to ‘hold his own end up.’ ”

Despite these bolstering words, it would have been hard to criticize congregants who left the pews and returned to the city streets with their spirits less than soaring. Not only was New York in the midst of hot, sticky weather—­eighty-­five degrees and humid—­but gas shortages inhibited exits out of the steaming metropolis to upstate or Long Island resorts.

There was some tentative-­sounding good news on the war in the Pacific. At a place called Midway, the Japanese fleet seemed to have been dealt a hard blow by the U.S. Navy and its aircraft; but in Europe, it was difficult to find anything to cheer about. The Germans were readying a new offensive against the Soviet Union that threatened to topple the Russians, leaving only the United States and Great Britain to maintain the fight against the Nazis. In France, Jews had just been ordered by the Vichy government to wear yellow stars. In North Africa, the latest news had it that Tobruk had fallen to General Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox,” leaving all of Egypt wide open to his Panzer divisions. Elsewhere, there were rumors, so awful that they were hard to credit, of Nazis using gas to exterminate Jews sent to camps on the eastern front.

For all this, perhaps the most debilitating aspect of war to the citizens of the New York and the rest of the East Coast was how near it seemed to the very harbor that sheltered this mass collection of ships and humanity. For months now, German submarines had been terrorizing the coastal waters of the eastern United States, sinking merchant ships with a vengeance just beyond the Narrows.

Under the command of Admiral Karl Doenitz, Germany had, at the start of the war in Europe, sent out forty-­six U-­boats to prey on British shipping. Initially, they were dispatched into the Atlantic as individual vessels, but in September 1940, Doenitz began sending out these sub- marines in groups that came to be known as “wolf packs.” Their numbers were increased into the hundreds, and their successes in sinking ships led German commanders to dub the early phase of the operation the “Happy Time.”

An increase in British protection of Allied convoys began to curtail the numbers of ships going to the bottom, but as soon as the United States entered the war in December 1941, Doenitz initiated an operation called Paukenschlag—­Drumbeat—­which sent U-­boats to the very shores of the United States to begin a brutal mauling of American shipping. The German command had been genuinely surprised by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and was only prepared to send half a dozen of its subs to American coastal waters in December 1941. But the fact that shipping traffic was so thick along the Eastern Seaboard, and that the United States was so ill prepared to deal with attacks, allowed this handful of U-­boats to destroy ship after ship in the region.

From the Gulf of Mexico to the Caribbean Sea, and tight to the coast all the way from Florida to Nova Scotia, the German subs wreaked havoc on defenseless ships. They lurked so close to American shores that one of their principal means of locating targets was to use the backdrop of city lights to outline and illuminate their prey. So successful was the enterprise that the Germans resurrected the nickname of their first successful operation and labeled this one, with a decided lack of creativity, the “Second Happy Time.”

A Norwegian tanker was sunk off the coast of Nantucket in early January 1942, two days later a British ship was sunk off of Long Island, and four days after that a Standard Oil tanker went down off the coast of North Carolina. In late February, near Barnegat Light in New Jersey, a torpedo plowed into the port side of the tanker R. P. Resor so close to the Jersey shore that an able seaman on watch could see the outline of the retreating U-­boat against the individual lights of homes and docks along the coast. Earlier in the month, the SS Lemuel Burrows was torpedoed and sunk just off Atlantic City, with twenty crewmen killed in the process. The second engineer on the ship wrote that it was the resort itself that doomed the ship. “We might as well run with our lights on. The lights [of Atlantic City] were like Coney Island. It was lit up like daylight all along the beach.”

As the weeks passed, Doenitz began to send more subs to American waters. In early April, a German U-­boat commander was so close to Jacksonville Beach in Florida as he watched the burning of a tanker he’d just hit (the Gulfamerica on her maiden voyage) that he could see tourists running to the shore from restaurants and hotels to gawk at the sight. He had originally intended to finish the tanker off with his deck guns, but when he saw the gawkers, he was afraid his shells would scream into the innocent bystanders. The commander decided to position his sub- marine to the landward side of the tanker and fire out toward the open sea. Later, he wrote a congratulatory note in his ship’s log, as if he’d been providing just another tourist sight for the Floridians gathered on the shore: “All the vacationers had seen an impressive special performance at Roosevelt’s expense. A burning tanker, artillery fire, the silhouette of a U-­boat—­how often had all of that been seen in America?”

Through the early months of 1942, few measures were taken by the U.S. military to prevent this carnage. Merchant shippers and marines pleaded with the navy to supply them with arms. More patrol boats and air patrols were needed to scour the East Coast for German subs. Shipping convoys surrounded by military vessels had been used to good effect by the British for almost two years: why weren’t they being employed here? Likewise, shoreline blackouts along British coasts had prevented the sort of stage-­light backdrops that made the killings easy for U-­boat commanders. Couldn’t we at least dim the lights?

Despite the pleas for action from the shipping industry and the public, it took the sinking of more than three hundred ships along the East Coast and in the Gulf and Caribbean before Admiral Ernest King, the chief of naval operations, finally took measures to protect the sea-­lanes. Air and boat patrols were gradually increased and the navy agreed to provide armed guards to merchant shipping.

Coastal lighting restrictions were a thornier issue. It turned out that despite the hazard to ships, shoreline businesses—­resorts, amusement areas, restaurants, and others—­were less than thrilled at the prospect of going completely black for the duration of the crisis, and the navy acceded to their requests for something less than a pitch-­dark coast line. A “dim out” was ordered instead, and the shielding of lights, rather than the extinguishing of them, became standard operating procedure.

The hardest nut to crack, for those trying to persuade King to specific action, was the implementation of the convoy system. For a man who was predisposed to dislike anything British, the positive effect of the system on wartime England’s shipping industry was not persuasive in its favor. King and a number of World War I veterans of the U.S. Navy argued that because convoys had to sail at the speed of their slowest members, they prevented faster vessels from performing to their utmost capabilities. King and others also felt the convoy system taxed already overcrowded ports upon arrival, resulting in delays and backups that slowed the process even further. And there was a confirmed belief in the U.S. Navy that there simply weren’t enough warships available in the fleet to provide protection for groups of merchant ships, to wage war against the Axis, and to meet the needs of the naval war in the Pacific.

The staggering number of vessels lost to U-­boats, however, was putting such a severe strain on American shipping capabilities that an alarmed George Marshall became involved in the discussion. He sent a note to King, writing, among other dire warnings, that “the losses by submarines on our Atlantic Seaboard and in the Caribbean now threaten our entire war effort.” Marshall acknowledged that escort ships were at a premium but wondered if King was searching in every nook and cranny for vessels. “Has every conceivable . . . means been brought to bear on this situation?” Marshall asked.

The man who was recently named by Marshall to head American forces in the European theater and who was a day away from flying to England to take that command, Dwight Eisenhower, was far more blunt in his assessment of the admiral, at least to his diary. “One thing that might help this war,” Eisenhower wrote, “is to get someone to shoot King.”

Table of Contents

Dramatis Personae ix

Prologue: A Good Citizen of Mehdia Morocco, 1940 1

Part I

Chapter 1 New York, June 1942 11

Chapter 2 Airborne to London 24

Chapter 3 Incorrigible 39

Chapter 4 Claridge's 46

Chapter 5 Halifax to Belfast 55

Chapter 6 Walking the Tightrope 64

Chapter 7 D.C. 69

Chapter 8 The Apostles 76

Chapter 9 The Hazards of Port Lyautey 84

Chapter 10 "I should like to embrace you" 90

Chapter 11 Snatching the Shark 94

Chapter 12 Romping 105

Part II

Chapter 13 Hollywood 117

Chapter 14 Tangier to Gibraltar to England 124

Chapter 15 Needs and Wants 130

Chapter 16 Meeting Gruenther 139

Chapter 17 SOS 141

Chapter 18 Amphibians 149

Chapter 19 Monsieur Prechak 154

Chapter 20 Looking for a Ship 156

Chapter 21 The Pieces in Place 162

Part III

Chapter 22 Dry Dock 171

Chapter 23 "Our Worst War Town" 177

Chapter 24 Off to Sea 184

Chapter 25 Uncle Sam Wants You 189

Chapter 26 Convoy 194

Chapter 27 Crossing 202

Chapter 28 "Je m'engage et puis je vois" 210

Chapter 29 Rendezvous 217

Chapter 30 "Viva la France eternelle" 227

Chapter 31 "Crack it open quickly" 243

Chapter 32 The Dallas Goes First 250

Chapter 33 Twelve Desperate Miles 259

Chapter 34 Armistice Day 270

Epilogue: "The little Contessa did the trick" 276

Notes 285

Index 313

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Twelve Desperate Miles: The Epic WWII Voyage of the Contessa 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a very well written book that keeps your interest while imparting information not previously know, at least to me. Very good story. Enjoyable read.
BillCA More than 1 year ago
Tim Brady as written a well researched story of a little know event in WW II history, a small action that was a significant part of the major 1942 allied landings in North Africa. This is the unlikely story of an old New Orleans banana boat, the SS Contessa, and a rag-tag crew, guided by a French harbor pilot, that was a critical part of a much larger, and complicated, military operation. The story is filled with espionage, land action, naval action, politics, and heroism. Great story, and all true.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Easy to read, slow to start, but once engaged held my attention
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good read but a lot of the material after the first sereral chapters contained a lot of different people and their backgrounds that somewhat took away from the main story about the Contessa. Than 2/3 thru the book it got back to why it appealed to me-- the blurb on the outside cover.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book if you want to know the life details of every single person no matter how insignicant thier role is. The story could have been told in 100 pages.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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efm More than 1 year ago
amazing story of war and those who make the difference in it
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An exciting book, especially for those old enough to remember America's first invasion of a German-controlled land as we began our quest to push the Axis troops back to their own lands and their ultimate destruction. But far more, it is also a book for those who remember the brazen German U-boats which, early in the war, operated with impunity not only within sight of residents on U.S. east coast, but also on the high seas along routes which convoys used to ferry supplies to our allies in Europe. And above all, it was a darned good sea story. Doc in Sisters
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