Nazi Germany's Secret World War II Plan to Attack America with Submarine Missiles
These losses caused the German Navy to disperse the survivors of Seewolf on vectors towards New York and Hamilton, and divert three additional U-Boats to reinforce their attack. By then, the slightly larger Second Barrier Force had deployed in a line abreast. One of the force’s TBF Avenger torpedo bomber spotted U-881 around midnight on April 23, but failed to sink the vessel with its depth charges.
The following morning U-546, commanded by Lt. Capt. Paul Just, began lining up an attack run on the escort carrier USS Core when the destroyer-escort USS Frederick C. Davis detected it and attempted to intervene. U-546’s acoustic homing torpedo struck the American vessel, breaking it in half in five minutes, losing 115 of its crew of 209. The nearby DEs swarmed around the submerged U-546 and pelted it with Hedgehogs for ten hours, until it finally surfaced. The badly damaged submarine was promptly blown to pieces by vengeful Allied shells.
Nonetheless, thirty-three survivors were rescued, including Captain Just, who was photographed coming on board the escort carrier USS Bogue. American interrogators were convinced that additional U-Boats were still creeping towards the East Coast to unleash a deadly missile barrage—but Just and his officers did not provide any information confirming that.
What followed was one of the few occasions that the U.S. military tortured prisoners during World War II. Captain Just and eight specialists from U-546 were placed in solitary confinement, beaten, deprived of sleep and forced to perform grueling exercise routines. These interrogations continued on U.S. soil until May 12, four days after the German surrender.
Operation Teardrop was not finished quite yet, however. The Second Barrier Force dispersed to cover a wider area and combed the waters westward towards American shores, reinforced by an additional escort carrier group. Shortly before dawn on May 5, sonar onboard the destroyer-escort USS Farquhar detected U-881 underwater. Farquhar promptly dispatched the submarine with a depth-charge attack—claiming the last German submarine sunk by the U.S. Navy during World War II.
On May 8, Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally. Amongst the many U-Boats notified to stand down was U-873, commanded by Friedrich Steinhoff, the man associated with the submarine rocket-launching tests. After surrendering to the USS Vance, Steinhoff and his crew were imprisoned in the Charles Street Prison in Boston. Steinhoff, described as “arrogant” and “menacing” by his Office of Naval Intelligence interrogators, was beaten and slapped until bloody. Two days later, he committed suicide using the cracked lenses of his sunglasses.
As it turned out, there were no U-Boats with missiles. The Kriegsmarine had dispatched Seewolf towards American shores to lower the pressure on its submarine operations in European waters.
The three-hundred-millimeter rockets Steinhoff had tested in 1942 were basically short-range unguided artillery. Though they could be fired from underwater, they were impossible to aim effectively and degraded the submarine’s seaworthiness, so the Kriegsmarine abandoned their development.
Later in November 1944, the Kriegsmarine began designing a launch container for V-2 ballistic missiles that would have been towed by a U-Boat off the East Coast. Construction of the first device theoretically concluded in Stettin around the same time as Operation Teardrop went into action, but like many desperate projects initiated in the final days of the Third Reich, nothing ever came of it. Nazi Germany never had any guided missile-launching submarines.
Aided by bountiful signals intelligence, Operation Teardrop succeeded in knocking out four of the seven submarines in Seewolf, and one of the three vessels sent as reinforcements. The U-Boats were intercepted both on the surface and submerged, reflecting the refinements in technology and tactics the U.S. Navy had implemented after the costly early years of the Battle of the Atlantic.
The U.S. Navy responded with overwhelming force against a potential threat to the continental United States—but proved too willing to bend its principles on the treatment of prisoners of war, escalating the use of torture when the prisoners did not confirm the interrogator’s incorrect assumptions, as often happens.
Ironically, it would actually be two U.S. submarines that first tested submarine-launched cruise missiles two years later. The weapon: an American copy of the V-1 buzz bomb.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
Image: German submarine Wilhelm Bauer. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Heribert Pohl