Way Before Pearl Harbor, America and Nazi Germany Were Locked Into a Naval War

U.S. Navy photo 80-G-59525 [Public domain]

Way Before Pearl Harbor, America and Nazi Germany Were Locked Into a Naval War

Yes, that is correct.

The undeclared naval war between the United States and Germany was coming to an end. Four days after the Sagadahoc was sunk, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. On December 11, 1941, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States.

America was not at war, but American sailors were dying when American-owned ships were torpedoed by German submarines. In 1941, few Americans knew of the destroyers USS Niblack, USS Greer, USS Kearny, and USS Reuben James, but these and other American warships were fighting a grim naval war months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

American warships fought this undeclared war in the bitterly cold waters of the North Atlantic. They often struggled through brutal sub-zero temperatures and rapid, violent weather changes. Heavy storms were common; storms developed so quickly that it was often impossible to predict them. In the winter, ice sometimes almost a yard thick covered the convoy ships and threatened to capsize them. Ships sank and sailors died within minutes in the icy water.

On November 5, 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented third term as president of the United States. This victory gave him the political clout to openly support Great Britain in her struggle against Germany, but by the spring of 1941, the British were in desperate straits both economically and militarily. Under Roosevelt’s order, the United States began using its warships to provide limited escort to merchant ships sailing for Britain, especially ships carrying weapons that America supplied through the Lend-Lease Act, which Roosevelt signed into law on March 11, 1941.

“We are not Yielding”

The first skirmish in what became the undeclared naval war between the United States and Germany took place on April 10, 1941, when the destroyer USS Niblack, on patrol in the North Atlantic, intercepted an SOS from the Dutch freighter SS Saleier. The SOS reported the Saleier was torpedoed and sinking rapidly. The freighter’s latitude and longitude placed her 441 nautical miles from Reykjavik, Iceland. The Niblack, ordered to her assistance, sailed all night. The next morning her lookouts spotted three small lifeboats. Before attempting to pick up survivors, the Niblack circled the lifeboats while conducting a sound search for German submarines. The crew of the Saleier, nine officers and 51 men, survived, but at 8:40 am, as the last of them were taken aboard the Niblack, sound contact was made with an “undersea object.”

D.L. Ryan, commander of Destroyer Division 13, with which the Niblack served, described in his report what happened next: “This contact was about two points abaft the starboard beam and if it were a submarine, it was rapidly approaching a position for attack. With safety of ship, crew, and survivors in mind, decision was made to attack instantly … Accordingly … the ship went ahead … at full speed and turned to an intercepting course. When it was estimated the ship should be over the submarine (if one were present) time depth charges were dropped at ten second intervals, and then the ship proceeded to clear the area at 28 knots on course North without further investigation.”

The Niblack arrived at Reykjavik on April 12. The Saleier’s crew was handed over to British authorities. It was later learned that the German submarine, U-52, was not hurt by the depth charges, if indeed the object was the U-52, which later proved extremely unlikely. The Niblack was the first U.S. Navy warship to use its weapons against Germany since World War I.

On May 21, 1941, the unarmed and clearly marked 5,000-ton American freighter Robin Moor, sailing from New York to various African ports, was stopped by the German submarine U-69 about 700 miles off the west coast of Africa. The ship carried a 38-man crew and eight passengers, four men, three women, and one child, all of whom were ordered to abandon the freighter, which was then sunk by the U-69. The Robin Moor was the first American merchant ship sunk by German submarines prior to U.S. entry into World War II. The other American-owned merchant ships sunk had been under Panamanian registry and, thus, flew the Panamanian flag.

A full-scale war between the United States and Germany loomed closer when, on June 14, Roosevelt froze Axis funds in the United States and, on June 16, he ordered German consulates closed and all German diplomats expelled. Branding Germany an “outlaw nation,” he told the U.S. Congress on June 20: “I am … bringing to the attention of the Congress the ruthless sinking … of an American ship, the Robin Moor, in the … Atlantic Ocean…”

Roosevelt climaxed his report with: “We are not yielding and we do not propose to yield.”

The American War Effort Increases

On the same day Roosevelt was reporting on the Robin Moor, the battleship USS Texas, the last coal-fired American battleship, which was launched May 18, 1912, and which served in World War I, was stalked by the German submarine U-203, a state-of-the art Type VIIc submarine almost 29 years younger than the battleship she was chasing. No exchange of hostile fire took place, but the submarine was apparently unable to catch the zigzagging battleship, which was southwest of Iceland.

In June 1941, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked Roosevelt to send American troops to Iceland to replace the British garrison there, thus freeing the British soldiers to fight elsewhere. Roosevelt agreed, and on July 1, 1941, the United States and Iceland reached an agreement allowing U.S. Marines to enter Iceland in order to prevent a German invasion. Four thousand Marines were ready for duty in Iceland, which was then a sovereign state under the government of Denmark. It was critical to beleaguered Britain that Iceland not be occupied by Germany. Because of this, Britain had occupied Iceland over a year earlier, on May 10, 1940. Roosevelt’s decision to send Marines to Iceland heightened the risk of war with Germany. The convoy carrying the Marines anchored in Reykjavik harbor on July 7.

The support of the American people for Roosevelt’s action remained steady throughout the year. Historian Richard R. Lingeman points out: “The country was overwhelmingly in favor of aiding England in late 1941. Asked [by a Gallup poll] which was more important: that the United States stay out of the war or that Germany be defeated, sixty-eight percent said it was more important … Germany be defeated.”

While no one died when the Robin Moor sank, this was not true on August 18, when two torpedoes from the submarine U-38 slammed into the Iceland-bound U.S.-Panamanian freighter SS Longtaker. The unescorted and unarmed ship sank within a minute of being torpedoed. Twenty-four of the freighter’s 27-man crew perished.

On September 4, 1941, the destroyer USS Greer was about 175 miles southwest of Iceland when a British patrol plane reported a submarine, later identified as the U-652. The submarine was 10 miles dead ahead. The Greer made sound contact with the U-boat and followed it. The British plane dropped four depth charges, then, for whatever reason, turned away. For more than three hours, the Greer tracked the submarine, repeatedly radioing its position to the British, but there was no British attack. Suddenly, the U-652 changed course and closed on the Greer. Every man on the destroyer was at his battle station when the lookouts sighted an impulse bubble—a big globule of air that was raised when a submarine fired a torpedo. The U-652 had fired without raising her periscope, aiming with her sound equipment.

Within a minute, Greer lookouts sighted the bubbling wake of the first of two torpedoes; it was about 100 yards astern. By then, the destroyer had begun to wheel and was steaming toward the spot where the lookouts observed the impulse bubble. Once the Greer was over the position, the destroyer dropped eight depth charges, but its sound man heard the submarine apparently moving away. Two minutes after the Greer dropped her depth charges, the second torpedo was sighted 500 yards off her starboard bow. It did not strike the Greer. After this, the destroyer lost contact with the submarine but continued searching. She picked up the submarine again that afternoon, closed, then attacked with depth charges, dropping 11. Nevertheless, the U-652 survived. By late afternoon, Greerlost contact with the submarine after a three-hour search, and then continued to Iceland. The USS Greer was the first American warship to be attacked in the undeclared naval war.

The next day, September 5, a German plane bombed and sank the American merchant ship Steel Seafarer in the Red Sea during its voyage from New York through the Suez Canal. A U.S. flag had been prominently painted on the side of the ship.

U-Boats: “Rattlesnakes of the Atlantic”

During Roosevelt’s September 11, 1941, radio speech to the American public, his 18th fireside chat with the nation, he called the attack on the Greer an act of piracy and then continued: “When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him. These Nazi submarines and raiders are the rattlesnakes of the Atlantic …”