The Buzz

How Hitler's Submarine Force Planned to Crush America's Economy during World War II

At 9:30 am on December 23, 1941, Hardegen’s U-boats, laden with everything from torpedoes to Christmas presents, weighed anchor and churned into the Bay of Biscay. The New World was far from ready for its approaching attackers. No blackouts, radio silence, or other precautions of any note were being employed, and the wolf pack would find excellent hunting.

Just before midnight on the 27th, U-123 crossed the demarcation line of 20 degrees west, where German submariners could finally learn their precise destinations. Opening their sealed orders, Hardegen assembled his officers and showed them the contents: a map of the U.S. East Coast and tourist guides to New York City. With the sudden American entry into hostilities, Dönitz had no detailed navigational material for the U.S. East Coast and was forced to send military personnel to forage through libraries to collect even this much.

Hardegen also learned from the orders that following the initial attacks off New York the U-boats were to move steadily southward, assaulting shipping until reaching Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, where their fuel would be running low, necessitating a return home.

The crew settled into a routine over the next few days as they steamed uneventfully across the Atlantic. Then, at 4 am on January 2, a wireless transmission arrived instructing Hardegen to attack a Greek freighter that had broken radio silence and broadcast a distress signal because of a damaged rudder. Guided by the ongoing directions the vessel, Dimitrios, was sending to an approaching ocean-going tug, U-123 advanced to point-blank range late on the night of the 4th, only for her crew to realize at the last second that two destroyers were escorting the Greek ship. Hurriedly backing off without being noticed, Hardegen resumed his westward trek.

Office of Naval Intelligence in Shambles

Although disgusted with himself for not having attacked, Hardegen had likely saved his U-boat. The Drumbeat boats were already being tracked by British naval intelligence. The dispatch informing him of Dimitrios’s position had been intercepted, decrypted, and passed on to the Canadian Navy, accounting for the destroyers’ presence. In fact, all five submarines were being plotted on their transatlantic passages by Royal Navy cryptanalysts at their headquarters in the town of Bletchley, 50 miles northwest of London.

Bletchley-based U-boat tracking specialist Rodger Winn was familiar with U-123 and even had Hardegen’s dossier. He knew this German was aggressive and independent and that Dönitz had recently begun pulling his U-boats from the high seas convoy routes despite heavy losses off Gibraltar. Abandoning the mid-Atlantic shipping lanes at a time when he no longer had sufficient reserves to withdraw from other theaters to replace those removed from North Atlantic convoy hunting was a baffling maneuver unless the Kriegsmarine was implementing a major strategy change.

Since Hitler had just declared war on America, it did not take Winn long to deduce Dönitz’s intentions. By telling an aide, “Be sure that the people upstairs keep Washington informed,” he made the first of Britain’s attempts to warn her powerful but ill-prepared ally of the approaching peril.

In Washington, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) was in shambles. Taken totally by surprise by Pearl Harbor, it was also a jumble of unnecessarily complex administrative structures, confusion, and internal feuding. Furthermore, the director of War Plans in Operation, 55-year-old Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, looked upon counterintelligence and espionage with profound contempt and refused to utilize the ONI, whose very capable head, Captain Alan G. Kirk, had resigned in disgust in October 1941.

The commander of the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Fleet was a hard-drinking 63-year-old admiral named Ernest King. Although his fondness for whiskey and allegedly other officers’ wives called his personal life into question, his diverse service record as an officer experienced in submarines, destroyers, and aircraft was exemplary. King had brought home a Navy Cross from World War I but offset it with another legacy from this conflict—a rancorous hatred of anything British. Also, as one of his daughters later related, “He is the most even-tempered man in the Navy. He is always in a rage.” Finally, King, too, held ONI in the lowest of esteem. All this time Hardegen and his pack were drawing nearer.

Decoding ‘Drumbeat’

At 5 am eastern time, January 9, 1942, U-123 was struggling through a violent marine blizzard 560 nautical miles east of Cape Cod. She had come 2,597 miles, and her men were anxious for some sign of land and targets. Hardegen himself visited the snow-slashed conning tower, and after futilely trying to discern anything through the roiling gray seascape sent his bridge watch below and submerged the boat for some smooth running below the turbulent surface.

When the seas calmed, the skipper ordered the U-boat back to the surface, and radio operator Fritz Rafalski began to intercept American wireless messages from both merchant and military vessels. At 5 pm a message arrived from Dönitz instructing his captains to concentrate on the area from New York City to Atlantic City. Another of the boats, U-125 commanded by Commander Ulrich Folkers, would hunt seaward of Hardegen off the New York and New Jersey coasts, Zapp off Cape Hatteras, Ernst Kals in Cabot Strait off Cape Breton Island, and Heinrich Bleichrodt southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia.