One of the major lures of America has always been its isolation.
For centuries, people tired of the constant bickering and warring between Europe’s myriad princes and petty nobles were drawn to America, snug behind its two immense ocean ramparts.
And for over a century and a half, the idea of seriously attacking America verged on science fiction.
Oh, it happened; British troops sacked Washington DC in 1812 – but that was when Canada was a serious military base for the British.
But as Canada receded into relatively pacific independence and various other powers’ attempts to turn Mexico and the Caribbean into bases succumbed to America’s enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine (and, mostly, tropical diseases), America’s position as a great, isolated, isolationist power gradually coalesced.
Not that other powers didn’t want to take a run at it.
Germany in particular was fascinated with cracking America’s invincibility Back in 1899, a German naval captain, Adolf Golzen, drew up a plan to blockade New York and Long Island and, as a coup de grace, land German infantry on Long Island to create a bridgehead. These troops would consolidate a foothold on the then-sparsely-populated island, while raiding into Manhattan. It seems far-fetched, and it was, although not perhaps for the reasons you’d think; the force the Germans planned to land may have outnumbered the entire regular US military at the time.
During World War I, the Germans pondered building Zeppelins that could bomb New York – but those plans were shelved at the end of the war.
Hitler pulled them out of the file cabinet when he started planning his war. New York in particular obsessed him; seeing it as a major Jewish population center, he dreamed of pounding New York into rubble.
He sent the German aircraft industry onto a long quest to build a bomber that could carry a ton of bombs to New York and return – and had his planners develop lists of targets for them to hit once they were built.
To his last days, as the Russians poured into Germany, his scientists worked on fanciful guided missile and long-range jets capable of bombing the city.
But as the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the Germans had a much more practical means of attacking the US. The fall of France had given their U-boats – Unterseeboote, or submarines – bases only 2,000 miles from the US coast.
And the commander of the German U-boat force, Admiral Karl Dönitz, saw the opportunity.
But at the beginning of 1942, he had only five boats available that could easily reach the east coast of the United States. Obsessed with choking off Britain, Hitler had ordered the construction of hundreds of smaller “Type VII” U-Boats, capable of about thirty days of cruising, enough to patrol to the mid-Atlantic without much support.
There were fewer of the larger, longer-legged Type IX boats – a few dozen, in early 1941 – and many of them were busy prowling the South Atlantic and even as far afield as the Indian Ocean to raid British commerce. Of the entire German U-Boat fleet, only five Type IX boats (U-123, U-130, U-66, U-109, and U-125) were available when Germany declared war on the US..
The Admiral called it Operation Paukenschlag - “Drumbeat”.
Dönitz gave Drumbeat a big patrol area – from the Chesapeake Bay up to the Saint Lawrence – and told them to focus on on bigger ships. over 10,000 tons.
And so in late December of 1941, the five boats sallied forth.
It may seem incredible in retrospect, for those who remember the fleets that the US and Britain sent forth later in the war – the thousands and thousands of ships that carpeted the English Channel on D-Day, the thousands of warships and thousands more support and supply ships that carried the war across the Pacific – but the US east coast was very sparsely defended in early 1942. To watch the entire US coast, the Coast Guard had a few dozen aircraft, mostly obsolete, and three operational cutters, along with a polyglot collection of WWI-vintage patrol boats, converted yachts and wooden “sub-chasers”. The Army Air Force had a few dozen bombers based on the East Coast. And on any given day, the Navy would have two destroyers, and the AAF a couple of short-ranged B-25 bombers, on duty to guard the entire Eastern Seaboard.
Naturally, inter-service rivalry being what it was, these units could not communicate with each other, much less coordinate their efforts.
It was 70 years ago today, about 75 miles off the coast of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina – directly east of the spot where the Wright Brothers had made their first flight a little over 38 years earlier – that U66, commanded by Korvettenkapitän Richard Zapp, stalked the American tanker Allan Jackson, a 7,000 toni tanker loaded with 72,000 barrels of oil and bound for New York. (We’ll encounter the U66 again in a couple of years).
Zapp hit the tanker with two torpedoes and slipped away. 13 of the ship’s crew of 35 were picked up the next day by an American destroyer.
In and of itself, the sinking of the Jackson was a minor event – one of thousands of ships sunk by U-boats during the war.
But the episode was the first in what became an epic – and largely unreported – bloodbath along the East Coast, and one of the greatest examples of bureaucratic incompetence in the history of this country.
The British – who, remember, were reading Germany’s U-boat communications in very nearly real-time by this point, thanks to their code-breaking operation that we talked about six months ago - had warned the Roosevelt Administration at the highest levels that Paukenschlag was underway, and to expect U-boat attacks.
Over the course of 1942, a total of forty U-boats carried out missions along the US coast, sinking ships with wild abandon, almost unopposed by any US forces. Between January and June, they sank 400 ships, totaling 2,000,000 tons (not counting their cargos), killing a total of 5,000 of their crew and passengers. The pickings for those six months were so easy, they went down in German U-boat lore as the “Happy Hunting Time”. Ships were being sunk within sight of American cities…
…which, due to an incredible bit of bureaucratic and political fumbling, remained brightly lit and, more importantly, pretty much uninformed about what was going on. The Roosevelt Administration didn’t want to create excessive panic on the East Coast – and so for the first month of Paukenschlag, it was business as usual along the East Coast.
But between the Administration’s political desire not to panic the entire East Coast - or to admit America was too vulnerable in what was, after all, a mid-term election year where Roosevelt rightly feared Republican backlash from the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor (which, indeed, led to the GOP’s best showing since the debacle of 1936), and the Army and Navy’s inability and unwillingness to either coordinate their efforts or divert forces from what they saw as their real missions – attacking Germany and Japan – virtually nothing was done.
So as the sinkings skyrocketed, the US didn’t institute a convoy system until February, and didn’t start truly devoting enough resources to the job until summer.
The U-boats got so bold that they were actually able to land agents and saboteurs on the US coast. They didn’t have any great effect – indeed, the first batch of them landed smack-dab on one of the few stretches of shore that was regularly patrolled by the military, and were promptly captured – but it was a sign that the US’ vaunted isolation, our ocean rampart, was porous.
Which is something Americans learn every few generations – in 1812, or 1942, or 2001 or…
…well, who knows?