There are (or were, at least – I can’t speak for how schools teach history today, and I’m not sure I want to know) a number of battles in World War 2 that are (or were) household knowledge, knowledge of which was part of the common cultural currency of being an American.
D-Day and Pearl Harbor are still fairly well-known. Americans who’ve served, or know people who’ve served, or are casual history buffs, might know about Midway, the Bulge, Iwo Jima.
You usually have to get into more-serious history, or people who’ve followed their own family histories closely, to find people today who know anything about Guadalcanal, Okinawa, Anzio, Monte Cassino, Saint Lo. People who watched Band of Brothers might know Market Garden.
But even the serious history buffs, when asked about the truly pivotal battles of World War 2, will frequently omit what may have been the most important battle of all – the Battle of the Atlantic.
We’ve touched on this before, of course; before the Battle of the Atlantic peaked in late 1941 through the middle of 1942, it very nearly succeeded in starving Britain to the negotiating table. Winston Churchill, after the war, said the progress of the Battle of the Atlantic scared him more than the Battle of Britain, or any other battle of the war, ever did.
During the Battle, Germany’s U-Boote – submarines – sank literally thousands of Allied merchant ships. Great Britain, an entirely maritime power with very little in the way of resources of its own (outside of coal, iron and filth), depended entirely on imports for…well, everything.
And so Hitler deluged the Atlantic with submarines. And those submarines – Unterseeboote, or “U Boats” – very nearly accomplished what the Luftwaffe and the Wehrmacht could not; bring the UK to her knees. It was said after the war that Churchill was more afraid of the submarine campaign in the Atlantic than any of Hitler’s other attacks on Britain and her interests.
The Allies gradually turned the tide, of course – at tremendous expense. America’s shipyards cranked out thousands of anti-submarine escorts, which thronged around convoys by the dozens, making getting in close to the attack an ever-more perilous venture. And US and Brit industry built thousands more anti-submarine patrol aircraft, which forced the submarines – crude vessels that differed not much from the ones in World War I – to stay below the surface during the day (and, via the aid of radar, at night as well), crippling their mobility. And for those wide gaps in the ocean where land-based aircraft couldn’t go, the US built close to 200 “escort” carriers – converted freighters and tankers with flight decks bolted atop the superstructure, to carry small groups of aircraft to find, suppress, and occasionally sink U-boats as they churned across the void to find the convoys.
And via brute force, those planes and ships whittled down the number of U-boats that would get close enough to convoys to actually sink any ships. Starting in late 1941, the job of the U-boat crewman got ever more perilous. By 1944, the tide had long turned.
Still, the tide turned only at immense expense, expense only the US could bear. It was an early example of an asymmetric campaign – where relatively inexpensive forces could attack not the enemy’s combat forces, but the supply and communications lines.
It was, in short, a nod to the future of warfare,
But seventy years ago today, the campaign took a brief turn back to the 1800s, when naval warfare was about ships pulling up alongside each other, throwing grappling hooks, and boarding and capturing one another with cutlass, pistol, and fist.
The Corsair – We’ve encountered the U-66 before. In January of 1942, it had been the first German submarine to sink a merchant ship off the US coast, at the beginning of a campaign that was highlighted by American incompetence, interservice and political squabbling, and horrendous American losses.
Two days shy of two years to the day after that sinking, U-66 departed on her ninth war patrol, from the sub base at Lorient, France. She’d had a very successful war to that point, sinking 29 allied merchant ships and damaging several more.
And the ninth patrol started out auspiciously, with the boat – under Oberleutnant Zur See Gerhard Seehausen – travelling to the South Atlantic, sinking four merchant ships.
But Seehausen and the sub weren’t travelling completely incognito. The British had long broken the German “Enigma” code, and were often aware of the locations of German submarines before the German admirals were. Worse for the Germans, the Navy (Kriegsmarine), to keep tabs on its fleet, asked captains to report in frequently – giving Allied codebreakers a wealth of material to decode and share with the fleet.
And so it was that a US “Hunter-Killer” task force, “Task Force 21. based around USS Block Island (pictured above) was directed toward the boat’s predicted location.
And on May 1, the first of Block Island’s aircraft saw the U-66, and attacked, forcing Seehausen to submerge. Which cut his speed from 16 knots down to 2-3 knots for a day or two, or 8 knots for a two-hour dash that would drain the batteries and force the boat to the surface for a few hours of recharging on the diesel engines.
The German sub got little rest for the next five days; as the task force’s surface ships closed in, the carrier kept a cloud of aircraft buzzing around the area, searching for the sub whenever it came up for air and to re-charge. And every time it surfaced, it was just a matter of time until planes found it. They dropped many depth charges – airborne bombs that were timed to explode below the surface – and three early, crude homing torpedoes, all of which missed, but which caused Seehausen to burn up battery power evading them.
Finally, on the morning of May 6, as the U-66 cruised on the surface repairing damage from a depth-charge attack, the destroyer escort USS Buckley caught the German sub.
It closed to attack with its cannon, damaging the sub, further preventing it from submerging. The Buckley’s CO, Lieutenant Commander Brent Abel, ordered his ship to ram the submarine.
Buckley’s bow lanced through the thin outer hull of U-66, and the two ships were stuck fast together. The ships backed and gunned engines and tried to extricate themselves, to no immediate avail.
Needing to buy time, Seehausen sent his second in command, Klaus Herbig, with a party of men to attempt to board the American ship – not so much to capture it as to occupy the crew’s attention while he extricated his sub.
It was the first time two ships had grappled and boarded each other in combat since the age of sail – since the War of 1812, in the case of the US Navy.
A fierce-hand-to-hand battle broke out on the Buckley’s forecastle, with a few German sailors killed and wounded and a a few American sailors injured – and Seehausen’s idea worked, for a while anyway. He freed the sub, and pulled away from Buckley as Herbig and four others were finally subdued, captured and taken below.
But the distraction on the foredeck done, Abel was able to turn his attention to the fleeing sub. Buckley’s guns – World War 1-vintage 3-inch guns, worthless against any modern surface ship, but perfectly capable against a relatively fragile sub on the surface, blasted away at the fleeing boat, finally scoring a hit near the engine compartment. The hit likely holed the boat’s pressure hull, dooming the sub. Seehausen turned his boat hard toward Buckley as incoming gunfire raked the deck, ramming the larger American ship near its engine compartment, damaging the ships’ starboard propellor.
Then, Seehausen orderred his boat scuttled, opening sea valves to prevent the top-secret code books and equipment from falling into American hands. Between the melee on Buckley, the machine-gun and artillery damage to the U-66, and the flooding, 24 of the German boat’s crew (and a captain and passenger from one of the ships they’d sunk days earlier, who were imprisoned aboard the sub) died. Seehausen was among the dead.
Buckley rescued 31 from the water, and took them, Herbig and his four other boarders to Block Island, where they survived the war as POWs.
They were, of course, the lucky ones; of over 1,000 U-boats commissioned during the war, just over 700 were lost in combat or went missing; over 3/4 of the 40,000 men who served in Germany’s submarine fleet died.