The Buzz

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

By this time, Admiral King had commenced gathering his scattered destroyers, summoning them from ports, training cruises, and convoy escort duty—not for coastal antisubmarine missions but to accompany troop convoy AT10 on its voyage to Northern Ireland. While U-123 was sinking Norness and Coimbra, the U.S. destroyers Mayrant, Rowan, Trippe, Wainwright, Roe, Gwin, Monssen, Livermore, Charles F. Hughes, Lansdale, Ludlow, Ingraham, and Hilary P. Jones were casually assembling off New York. Hardegen somehow managed to avoid stumbling into any of the warships. None of the U-boats in the vicinity spotted any of the transports and their human cargo.

Twelve destroyers still off the New England coast remained idle until the Bristol embarked for Casco Bay for routine assignment on the 15th and the Ellyson went to New London, Connecticut, for training. The other 10 remained berthed. The opportunity to crush Drumbeat and make Dönitz cautious about approaching U.S. shores again was obvious and potentially easy to exploit, but King did nothing. For lesser negligence the Army and Navy commanders at Pearl Harbor had been fired. Meanwhile, with six torpedoes left, Hardegen was moving south as Zapp and Folkers arrived at their hunting grounds. The slaughter was just beginning.

Richard Zapp in U-66 cruised into the risky, shoal-bisected sea-lanes off North Carolina on January 16. Two nights later he spotted his first victim as a blacked-out tanker tried to slip through the moonless night northeast of Diamond Shoals. It was the 6,635-ton Allan Jackson, en route from Cartegena, Colombia, to New York with 72,870 barrels of oil. Zapp’s first officer lined up his forward tubes and sent two torpedoes into Jackson’s starboard hull, igniting an offshore petroleum bonfire. The conflagration was so immense and intense that Zapp decided his original intention of picking up survivors to interrogate about the proximity of more targets was too dangerous.

After waiting 20 minutes and watching the tanker break up and sink among its blazing cargo, the Germans turned away and resumed hunting. Jackson went down with 22 of her 35-man crew. The following night Zapp deliberately sank the 7,988-ton Canadian passenger-cargo ship Lady Hawkins. A total of 162 of the ship’s 212 passengers and 88 of her 109 crewmen were lost, sending Drumbeat’s death toll to over 400. King had yet to react.

Raiding Off Cape Hatteras

During the night of January 16, Rafalski intercepted a transmission on the 600-meter band that gave U-123’s crew a great deal of amusement. The U.S. Army Air Forces had announced that an American coastal bomber had sunk the marauding U-boat off New York. Apparently the crew of that plane had been as inexperienced at interpreting the results of attacks as they were at launching them. Otherwise, there was little excitement that night as U-123 spotted nothing but a small fishing boat.

The following evening the Germans saw their first hostile warship as an unidentified destroyer passed them on the seaward side off Five Fathom Bank. They were lurking in dangerously shallow water and would have been trapped if attacked. Bracketed between the destroyer and the shore and with very little depth beneath them, they could not have fled out to sea or dove to safety, but the ship steamed past. By 7:13 pm, it was out of sight.

Hardegen later claimed to have sunk a 4,000-ton freighter just before daybreak, but no record of its loss is found in Allied maritime records. Rapidly departing the vicinity, the raiders headed east into deep water for a daylight sprint toward Cape Hatteras where, according to wireless intercepts, excellent hunting was accumulating.

After a defiant daylong surface dash, U-123 arrived off Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, at dawn on the 18th and settled to the bottom in 147 feet of seawater. Breaking the surface at 6:46 pm on January 19, she steered for Cape Hatteras, 50 more miles to the south. Hardegen had five torpedoes remaining, and the coming night’s work would be devastating.

At 9:04, the Germans sighted and attacked a medium-sized northbound freighter, but their first shot malfunctioned and missed. By the time they caught up with their quarry, they were back off Kitty Hawk. This time the torpedo ran true, striking starboard and just aft of the funnel. Hardegen had maneuvered to within just 450 yards of the ship, and seconds after the explosion U-123 was showered with burning debris. This vessel, which went under at map coordinates 36-06N, 75-24W, eluded identification. The raiders did not tarry to pick up survivors because of their rush to investigate a ship’s lights spotted to the south.

Before the night ended, Hardegen and his men bagged the 5,269-ton freighter City of Atlanta, the 3,779-ton freighter Ciltvaira, and using their last torpedo and 10 rounds from their 105mm deck gun, crippled the empty tanker Malay. Forty-six merchant seamen died that night.

62 Ships Sunk in Coastal Waters

There was no excuse for the dearth of destroyer protection along the Eastern Seaboard. During the first four months of 1942, the transatlantic convoy routes were so sedate that sailors lost their fear of U-boats and became casual about showing lights at night. Just one convoy, 0N67 in late February, suffered a U-boat attack, losing six ships. Meanwhile, 62 vessels had been lost to torpedoes in coastal waters in less than two months. In March, 74 went down in the Atlantic west of 50 degrees west longitude.