Sea To Blazing Sea

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.

British troops burning Washington DC in 1812. Some liberals claim this was the Tea Party.

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.

The Messerschmidt 264 "Amerika", designed to be able to reach targets in America as well as prowl the Atlantic to find targets for the U-boats. Oddly - for a nation known for great cars and engineering - the Germans never developed an aircraft engine capable of reliable long-range performance. .

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.

German Type VII (top) and Type IX U-boats. Note that the Type IX was about twenty feet shorter than the typical American submarine of World War II, which were designed for the even longer ranges of the Pacific Ocean.

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 U-505, on permanent display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, was a Type IXc boat that spent its 11 war patrols in the South Atlantic and Caribbean - but also patrolled off the US East Coast, sinking a few ships. One of few U-boats to survive the war, it was captured by US forces in 1944; we'll come back to that in a couple of years. And if you've ever taken a tour of the cramped, claustrophobic U-Boat, do try to imagine what it was like riding the thing for 80-days at a shot -a typical patrol for a Type IX boat.

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.

So short was the US of aircraft to watch for U-boats on the East Coast, the Army Air Force was forced to enlist civilian aviation enthusiasts. So was formed the "Civil Air Patrol". Today, they focus on finding wayward hunters and snowmobilers; seventy years ago, they scoured the ocean for U-boats. A U-boat couldn't tell the difference between a private plane and a patrolling bomber loaded with depth charges - so they'd submerge, greatly shortening their range and hampering their search for targets. And occasionally the CAP would radio a target to the Air Force, which could take more aggressive action. Ro so went the theory; while coordination improved with time, inter-service rivalry and focus on other areas of the war hindered such coordination.

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).

The SS Allan Jackson.

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.

Zapp returns from patrol, atop the conning tower of the U66. The boat would be sunk in one of the most bizarre incidents of the war (well get to that in 2014). But although over 3/4 of U-boat crewman would die during the war, Zapp survived the war.

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.

A freighter, down by the stern off the US coast, viewed from the conning tower of the U-boat that had just torpedoed it.

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 USS Roper - a World War I-vintage destroyer plucked from the reserve fleet to patrol the coast for subs. In a controversial incident in 1942, Roper sank one of the few U-boats actually sunk during Operation Drumbeat. In an unrelated incident, I met one of Roper's crew at the dedication of the World War II memorial in Saint Paul, in 2007.

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?

9 thoughts on “Sea To Blazing Sea

  1. New York in particular obsessed him; seeing it as a major Jewish population center, he dreamed of pounding New York into rubble.
    In both WWI and WWII most Germans seemed to believe that the US was populated by Blacks and Red Indians. In WWI, when the Kaiser’s troops in France heard that America was entering the war, they fully expected to face battalions of tomahawk wielding native Americans with feathered headdresses.
    (See Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel.

  2. RE: U505 at Museum of Science & Industry.
    Make your way to that thing straight away when you enter the museum. Tours of it sell out quickly. We made our way through the museum and got to the boat about two hours prior to closing only to be informed that the tours for the day were sold out.

  3. 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.

    Epic, yes. Bureaucratic incompetence, yes (when it isn’t incompetent is more surprising than when it is). But “largely unreported” isn’t quite true. It was well covered in the coastal newspapers of the time. The news wires provided some censorship for the interior of the country, but if you read the coastal papers of the time they covered the events quite well.

    This was a slaughter, but it wasn’t completely unintentional. It was a deliberate calculation by the highest levels that the coastal trade was to be a sacrificial lamb to getting military goods moving overseas at the greatest rate possible. The convoy system was rejected initially simply because coastal convoys would slow commerce and at the time the loss of lives and property of the coasting trade were judged as worth it to the war effort.

    Even trans-Atlantic convoys were judged as too constraining at the start of the war, but the vastly larger numbers of the Type VII boats quickly put an end to that thinking with truly horrific carnage and loss of life (it’s a lot easier to survive in the relatively warm coastal waters near shore). If there had been more Type IX boats at the start of the war there may well have been a coastal convoy system instituted earlier. As it was, Roosevelt and company made a bloody decision to sacrifice the coasties in favor of letting what could get through actually get through. That they didn’t do the simple things that would have lessened the carnage (like blacking out coastal cities) was criminal and part of the bureaucratic incompetence you mentioned.

  4. Yet more evidence, were any needed, of the perfidy, mendacity and treachery of the odious FDR

  5. If you would like to tour a US submarine, I suggest visiting the USS Cod. It is docked on Lake Erie in Cleveland. Obviously, it is closed for the winter, but it is worth the time if you are in the area. Having been on both the U-505 and the Cod, I think that the U boat was a little less cramped.

  6. Boss,

    Really? I toured the USS Becuna – a sister ship of the Cod – at Philadelphia, once, and I’ve been on the U505 twice. And I thought the American boat was a lot less claustrophobic (although being 6’5, they’re both tiny). Part of it was that the interior of the American sub was mostly stainless steel, while the German was mostly rough black iron; it felt smaller. Partly because the Becuna had a separate bunk/mess compartment for the enlisted men – in the 505, there were spaces for the CO, a few officers, and one for the senior petty officers, while everyone else bunked and ate on the torpedo tubes and among the engines. So some of the spaces on the U505 that seemed more open – the fore and aft torpedo rooms – would have been jammed with sleeping sailors in real life.

    One other thing – the German boats were very no-frills; they were really barely advanced from World War I boats. The American boats added air conditioning – not for the men, but to protect all the electrical gear from South Pacific humidity. They also included a fridge and a freezer, so the food wouldn’t rot. The U-boats included none of that. So when I was in the 505, I tried to imagine what it’d be like on a boat like that in the equatorial South Atlantic or the Indian Ocean, after six weeks at sea on a boat full of guys who hadn’t had a shower the whole time, and rotting unrefrigerated food to boot.

  7. Oddly – for a nation known for great cars and engineering – the Germans never developed an aircraft engine capable of reliable long-range performance. .

    Sorry to harp on this, but aren’t you forgetting the FW-200 Condor, Churchill’s “Scourge of the Atlantic”? And the first aircraft to do the Berlin-NYC route non-stop. As a civilian plane converted to military use the plane wasn’t able to take a lot of punishment, but the engines weren’t the weak point in that plane.

    The Condor shone on long distance recon and frankly land based heavy bombers sucked at attacking naval targets in motion even with the best technology of the time. The only practical way for aircraft to hit moving ships was to get close like the dive bombers and torpedo planes, or to use precision guidance like the kamikazes. That’s not to say the Germans didn’t try to turn the Condor into a bomber, but they lost too many planes in the attacks and the remaining ones served better by directing the u-boats to their targets.

    One thing to remember is that the Germans never really had much need to have long range aircraft engines until it was really too late. Bombers in the Atlantic didn’t work as well as the u-boats. And when the army was on the offensive they were never very far from their targets and Britain never moved out of short range attack bombers.

    The only time you could really argue that Germans might have practically used a long distance bomber would have been after they were stalled on the Eastern Front and wanted to attack Russian factories that have been moved east to avoid the war. But by then the Luftwaffe had to prioritize fighters to protect the German industrial machine so long distance bombing never really became more than a pipedream.

    It doesn’t hurt to challenge your war machine to look at off the wall ideas at times, so asking if you could bomb NYC wasn’t necessarily stupid. Look at Wallace’s bouncing bomb, for example, that seriously damaged German industrial output for 3-4 months. Or the Manhattan Project that ended the war, but that nobody was certain could be done (I loved Fermi showing how uncertain they were of things by taking bets on the bomb igniting the troposphere even at the end of the project). You get some real duds, but sometimes you can hit the home run.

  8. Not ignoring the Condor, although it did in fact have engine problems IIRC as well; it was good that it had four of them.

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