Pensacola Sea Stories - The U-Boat War in the Gulf

A Story of the Gulf of Mexico's Maritime History

The following article appeared in the Gulf Coast Historical Review which is published biannually in the Fall and Spring by the History Department of the University of South Alabama, Humanities 334, Mobile AL. 36688. Subscription inquries should be sent to the "Managing Editor", GCHR at the address above. The article that follows was copied from Vol.5, No.2 with their permission. (It's a great little magazine!)

U-Boats in the Gulf: The Undersea War in 1942

Allen Cronenberg

In early May 1942 the first two German U-boats which would operate in the Gulf of Mexico in the spring and summer of that year entered the Florida Straits. The Gulf would be a lucrative hunting ground, not only for these two boats, but for at least a dozen others which followed. From May through July America's Gulf Sea Frontier, consisting of the Gulf of Mexico, the northwestern Caribbean, most of the Bahamas, and the east coast of Florida from Miami up to Jacksonville, was the deadliest place on earth for shipping. (1) During June 1942 in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and their approaches, German Uboats destroyed more shipping than they had sunk in any single month in all theaters of the war combined. (2) In the Gulf of Mexico alone from May through September fifty-eight ships of approximately 300,000 tons would be sent to the bottom by torpedoes, gunfire or scuttling. (3)

In August, by which time America had strengthened its woefully inadequate sea defenses and convoys were being organized in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, there was a sharp reduction in successful U-boat attacks. In September the single German U-boat operating in the Gulf disposed of only one medium sized tanker. By then, the focus of operations had shifted back to the North Atlantic where U-boats were being massed to attack convoys bound for Britain and Russia.

Except for sporadic forays in 1943, the U-boat war in the Gulf of Mexico ended in late summer of 1942. From Admiral Doenitz's perspective it had been a remarkably successful campaign: "The results obtained had by far exceeded the high expectations held by U-boat command in January when operations in American waters had started." (4)

The decision to send U-boats to America and later into the Gulf of Mexico had been reached in accordance with Doenitz's fundamental doctrine of submarine warfare - to destroy the most enemy trade at the least cost to Germany's submarine fleet. The German navy's most important task was "to wage war on trade; its objective was therefore to sink as many enemy merchant vessels as it could. The sinking of ships was the only thing that counted." (5)

Doenitz's strategy of concentrating a massive assault on shipping was hampered by two factors. One was the difficulty in convincing Hitler of its merits. It was not until the spring of 1942 that Hitler was, perhaps reluctantly, won over to the argument that the destruction of shipping was the primary function of the German navy. (6) The other obstacle was the failure to allocate sufficient resources to submarine construction early in the war. Even had the will existed, there were not enough U-boats - at least before mid-1942 - to destroy more shipping than the Allies could produce. When war broke out in September 1939 Germany had a mere forty-six operational U-boats, only twenty-two of which had sufficient cruising range to be of any use in the Atlantic. (7) Of those, only five to seven could actually be operating at any given time.

The entry of the United States into the war in December 1941 radically altered the picture. Doenitz needed more U-boats than ever before, but plans to construct 72 large Type IX and 228 medium Type VII U-boats were scaled back in December owing to reduced supplies of raw materials, especially copper. Three months later construction goals were further reduced. Now only 36 large boats and 144 medium ones were planned for 1942. Instead of twenty-five new U-boats per month, only fifteen were anticipated. (8)

Nonetheless there were enough U-boats to challenge British and American shipping in the North Atlantic and in more southerly waters. At the end of 1941 there were 98 operational U-boats. (9) Four months later 124 were operational and an additional 114 were in construction or undergoing sea trials. (10) Of the 124 operational U-boats, 85 were assigned to the Atlantic, 20 to the Mediterranean and 19 to Norwegian waters.

The decision to send U-boats to operate off American shores was reached within days after Pearl Harbor. At a naval conference with the führer on December 12, Admiral Raeder argued that the United States would be so distracted by events in the Pacific that Germany should intensify its efforts in the Atlantic to disrupt supplies reaching Great Britain. Six U-boats were authorized to proceed to the east coast of the United States. (11)

Successes were not long in coming for Operation Drumbeat. Within a month U-123 commanded by Hardeggen had arrived in the western hemisphere and on January 12, 1942 sank a nine thousand-ton British steamer, Cyclops, the first victim of the "Happy Times." Virtually no organized resistance greeted the intruders. All shipping up and down the Atlantic seaboard was at risk, especially near the major ports and off Cape Hatteras.

Reacting to the dangers posed by German U-boats in American waters, President Roosevelt borrowed twenty-four anti-submarine trawlers from Great Britain and reorganized the defense of the eastern and southern coasts. It was clear that the Eastern Sea Frontier with its headquarters in Manhattan would be unable to oversee effectively the defense of the entire western Atlantic. On February 6, 1942, a Gulf Sea Frontier was formed to defend the southern coast from Jacksonville to Texas from the looming German menance. The Seventh and Eighth Naval Districts headquartered in Key West and New Orleans respectively formed this Gulf Sea Frontier whose fast commander was Captain Russell Crenshaw. The forces at his disposal were overwhelmed by the events which followed.

The first ship sunk by a U-boat in the Gulf Sea Frontier was an American tanker, Pan Massachusetts, torpedoed in the early afternoon of February 19 off the Florida coast near Fort Pierce. During the next week Hardeggen and a companion U-boat operating off Florida's east coast sank four more tankers. Little substantial progress toward organizing anti-submarine defenses had been made in the Gulf Sea Frontier by the time two more U-boats arrived in April. Hardeggen in U-123, lying on the ocean bottom by day and attacking at night, sank six ships between April 8 and April 13. Over the course of the next two weeks five U-boats, including that of Cremer who survived the war and who recently published an account of his World War II experiences, torpedoed or destroyed by artillery twelve more vessels, five of which were tankers. (12)

Raeder and Doenitz, quite pleased with the results of Operation Drumbeat, pressed for additional efforts in the western Atlantic. At the naval conference with the führer on March 12 Raeder stressed the advantages of capitalizing upon the "unpreparedness of the United States." (13) During April Doenitz would time and again return to the theme of taking advantage of America's weakness. On the twelfth of that month he set forth a very carefully elaborated assessment of conditions on the American coast. (14)

Doenitz recognized that American defenses had been significantly improved since Operation Drumbeat began. Destroyers, picket ships, and observer craft were patrolling. He mistakenly concluded that steps to organize shipping into convoys had been taken. (15) Nonetheless, Doenitz concluded, "the opportunities for attack remain on as high a level as heretofore." Not only did he regard navy and coast guard crews as "undistinguished, inexperienced and not very tenacious in pursuit," but he erroneously believed the U.S. Navy had ineffective sonar. Even after detecting the presence of a submarine, destroyers and picket ships preferred to "give wide berth rather than going over to the attack." Some U-boats had been detected in water as shallow as twenty meters, and still none had been lost in combat. Doenitz concluded that "taking everything into consideration, our boats have been so successful that their presence along the coast remains justified and further successes are to be expected."

In a war diary entry of April 15 Doenitz further refined Germany's U-boat strategy tor American waters. In response to criticism that U-boats were failing to "intercept vessels bound from America to Great Britain, Doenitz argued that it really didn't matter where a ship was sunk. The enemy's shipping network forms a single, unified piece. In the final analysis every ship sunk must be replaced. Over the long haul, Doenitz argued, the decisive question is the "race between sinking and new construction." (16)

Doenitz further recognized that his strategy against merchant shipping would forestall the opening of a second front in Europe. U-boats should be employed, therefore, wherever the most enemy merchant tonnage could be sunk the "most cheaply" - that is, with an acceptable rate of U-boat losses.

For the foreseeable future, U-boats could operate with relative impunity along the American coasts. The beefed up air and naval defenses were being operated by "inexperienced crews which do not constitute a serious threat at present." "American fliers," said Admiral Raeder, "see nothing, the destroyers and patrol vessels are travelling too fast most of the time even to locate submarines, or they are not persistent enough in their pursuit with depth charges."

On the other hand, German naval strategists could foresee a time when Germany would be forced to break off the U-boat offensive in American waters. Coastal waters were shallow, making U-boats operations hazardous. Eventually the United States would organize convoys which would probably be ineffective at first until they gained more experience. If and when merchant traffic lightened up, Germany would resort to laying mines in front of the major harbors. Finally, Raeder acknowledged that "if operations in the American area should prove unprofitable, we shall resume warfare against the convoys in the North Atlantic with a large number of U-boats." (17)

It was to carry out this strategy of attacking American coastal merchant shipping, especially oil tankers, that U-507, a long range type IX boat, captained by Lt. Commander Harro Schacht slipped out of the former French submarine base at Lorient in the evening of April 4, 1942, to make the short run downriver into the Bay of Biscay and on into the Atlantic. (18) Two days later Lieutenant Erich Würdemann and U-506 sallied forth with orders to rendezvous with U-507 in the Gulf of Mexico near the Mississippi delta. (19)

The journey across the Atlantic was uneventful, dotted with diving practice, firing guns and inspecting torpedoes. In order to conserve fuel both boats proceeded slowly, mostly on the surface. April 20 was punctuated by a remembrance of the führer's birthday which Würdemann commemorated with a little speech.

Having arrived in the western Atlantic, Schacht was the first to draw blood. Just before noon on April 30 off northeastern Cuba, U-507 surfaced in the wake of a small tanker, and because - as the captain said - it "didn't deserve" a torpedo it was sunk with artillery fire. Another vessel was in view, but pursuit broke off when an airplane appeared on the horizon. The other U-boat was forging westward through the Nicolas Channel heading for the Straits of Florida, where Würdemann was pleased to discover that the Americans were not yet flying nighttime patrols. Like every German U-boat captain who passed through these waters, he noted that coastal lights were burning just as in peacetime. (20)

That same night U-506, sailing south, saw a bright halo ot'hght over Miarm which lay on the starboard. Just to the south of Miami and with a luminous moonlit sea, Wfirdemann sank a small Nicaraguan freighter around midnight with a single torpedo.

During the next two days, both U-boats made their way through the Straits of Florida into the Gulf of Mexico. On May 4, U-507 sank its first ship in the Gulf west-northwest of Key West. It was an American freighter, the Norlindo. According to survivors the German sub surfaced and gave them forty packs of cigarettes and a cake with French witing on it. (21) Within the next twelve hours two more vessels were sunk. The first was a tanker, the Munger T. Ball which exploded when struck by the torpedo. Schacht described the scene in his war journal: "The whole sea burns in a wide circle around the spot where she sank. Over it stands a gigantic mushroom of smoke." (22)

Almost immediately U-507's radio operator listening on the 600-meter band picked up an SOS from another ship, the Joseph M. Cudahy, reporting the torpedo attack. Within an hour this vessel, too, had been sighted and was being tracked. Realizing its desperate situation, the Joseph M. Cudahy began zigzagging into the pitch black night. But it was hopeless. In less than three hours this ship too exploded and was burning from stem to stern. An hour later, an American shore station sent an urgent U-boat warning to all ships in the Gulf of Mexico instructing them to extinguish all of their lights at night.

U-506 was the first of the two boats to reach the designated rendezvous to the southsoutheast of New Orleans. While waiting on the surface in a calm sea with visibility limited by haze it spotted a PC type subchaser forcing the sub to crash dive. No depth charges followed and no sonar was heard. U-507, meanwhile, was miles away, distracted by tempting targets. On May 6 and 7 Schacht was busy sinking two freighters by artillery, and just after dawn on the eighth torpedoing a Norwegian freighter, Torny, which was steaming for the mouth of the Mississippi. On the following day Schacht was attacked by an airplane which dropped two bombs, causing no visible damage, however it was later realized that nearly two tons of fuel oil were missing from the bunker. Although no leak could be found, the forward depth rudder on the starboard side had torn loose probably causing the clanking noise which could be heard when submerged.

When Schacht intercepted the U-boat warning issued by New Orleans'Eighth Naval District on May 10 he knew that Würdemann and U-506 were not far away. Würdemann, in fact, was sinking his first victim in the Gulf. It was the tanker Aurora which he had begun pursuing just before midnight. About 1:30 in the morning local time, Würdemann fired two torpedoes, one of which struck amidships slowing the tanker down. An hour and a half later U-506 fired two more torpedoes, both of which exploded, causing the Aurora to stop, list to starboard, and begin sinking abaft. (23)

The onslaught of sinkings led to beefed up patrols at sea and in the air. Although the discovery of surfaced U-boats was rare, about midmorning on May 11, U-506 was attacked by a plane coming out of the sun which was spotted by the watch too late. A powerful detonation tossed the U-boat about, causing little damage except to tube five into which a torpedo could not be inserted.

Ashore there was as yet little awareness that the war had moved into the Gulf and that the coastal communities were soon to become part of America's front fine in the war against Germany. The ports, of course, were bustling with activity. Normal shipping was augmented by wartime cargos of industrial goods, foodstuffs, and petroleum products. There were newjobs and cities such as Mobile and Galveston were growing and prospering. Smaller communities also benefited, for example, Pascagoula and Moss Point, which tripled in size between 1940 and 1942 following the opening of the shipyard there. (24)

Another of the Gulf's bustling shipyards was the Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company which had a contract to build ten thousand-ton Liberty ships. On May 3, when U-507 and U-506 were running through the Straits of Florida toward the Gulf, a crowd of some two thousand Mobilians were at the Pinto Island shipyard participating in the christening of the Arthur Middleton, the company's second Liberty ship in ten days and the fourth built by the firm. (25) Another Mobile firm, Gulf Shipbuilding, whose shipyard was at Chickasaw, was at that same time putting the finishing touches on the USS Capps which was the first destroyer built in the eastern Gulf and the firt warship built in Alabama since the Civil War. (26)

Although acts of war had taken place in the Gulf during the first week of May and although shipping had been warned of the presence of U-boats in the Gulf, there was, then, no public acknowledgement of these events. It was not until Sunday, May 10, that newspapers carried stories about the sinking of vessels in the Gulf. In Mobile's Press Register a bold headline announced the torpedoing of Gulf shipping. (27)

The main angle of the story was the possibility that the sub attacks were masterminded by Baron Edgar von Spiegel, a World War I submarine veteran and former German consul in New Orleans whose Nazi fanaticism had embroiled him in controversy and led to his being withdrawn from America. The likelihood that he was on board one of the subs seemed, for the gullible at least, to be confirmed by interviews with the rescued merchantmen who reported being hailed by a tanned officer wearing shorts who spoke, as they said, perfect "American." Almost without fail, survivors of U-boat attacks had the same story to tell. Following the attack, the U-boat approached. A German officer, almost invariably wearing shorts and tanned, spoke to them in impeccable English or American. Survivors were given cigarettes and matches, and they were given directions for the nearest coastline. Usually, the German made some lame joke about blaming this on Mr. Roosevelt or Mr. Churchill and that the shipping company could bill them for the damages.

There is no evidence that Edgar von Spiegel or any other "Nazi fanatic" was masterminding U-boat attacks in the Gulf. In point of fact, there is little evidence that Doenitz and the Naval War Staff had much in the way of intelligence other than what they could read in the press or interpret from intercepted radio signals. Nonetheless there was great fear that America was crawling with Nazi agents, an apprehension lent some credence by a few isolated incidents. The arrest of eight Nazi agents who had been landed in the United States by U-boats fuelled this kind of speculation. One group of four had come ashore on Long Island and the other at Ponte Verde Beach just south of Jacksonville, Florida. These saboteurs possessed dynamite, $150,000 in cash, as well as maps and plans of industrial installations, bridges, and hydroelectric plants. (28) In an unrelated incident in early July, FBI agents entered the homes of forty aliens living on the Gulf coast, seizing flares and telegraph keys from homes in Greenville, Vicksburg, and Natchez, Mississippi. (29)

Closer to home, ordinary citizens were reminded of the presence of spies and saboteurs by the "Zip Your Lip" campaign and by the anti-espionage classes which J. Edgar Hoover's G-Men were holding in Mobile and other towns to coordinate law enforcement agencies in their struggle against espionage. (30) Hollywood was also doing its bit to remind Americans to be on guard against Axis agents. A Grade B film, "Secret Agent of Japan," with a cast of unknowns was playing at Mobile's Empire Theater.

However, fears that German agents and spies and saboteurs were lurking around the Gulf are not borne out by the war diaries of Doenitz or U-boat commanders. If Raeder, Doenitz, and the naval staff had intelligence about the American war effort, ship sailings, and other useful information, there is no evidence so far that it was passed on to the U-boats on station along the Gulf Coast. Würdemann, Schacht, Müller-Stöckheim and other U-boat commanders were left to their own devices to wait patiently outside the principle harbors or to patrol the obvious coastal sea lanes to discover ships to sink. The U-boats didn't really need any secrets. Ship traffic was still moving independently and with little protection.

After rendezvousing near the mouth of the Mississippi, U-506 and U-507 enjoyed great success. Between May 10 and 20, Würdemann in U-506 sank eight vessels and Schacht bagged two more. Schacht should have had more kills, but for inexplicable reasons and to his great disappointment some of his torpedoes ran under ships, others ran in circles and in still others the explosive pistols failed to fire. He was not the only U-boat captain to experience similar technical problems which were not solved until later in 1942. (31) For the moment German torpedoes were little better than they had been in 1918.

Both captains reported an abundance of ship traftic, at least during the daylight hours. Except for constant, but ineffective, aircover on the major ship channels and occasional PC boats it was almost like peacetime. Ships were travelling singly. There were no convoys. To protect themselves, some vessels had been painted in camouflage, and though some had deck guns, they were almost never used and in any case were mostly ineffective. Until a coastal dimout was ordered for the Gulf in mid-June, lights still burned brightly on the shore at night, but whether that contributed to U-boat successes is a matter of debate. (32)

Sea conditions near the passes of the Mississippi were generally favorable for U-boats. Although currents ran strong and it was oftentimes difficult to navigate in shallows, the turbid water discharged by the river concealed U-boats. Schacht reported the muddy water provided good cover at periscope depth and reduced the risk of detection by sound. (33) Both Schacht and Würdemann advised Doenitz that the Gulf of Mexico offered rich opportunities for additional U-boatS. (34)

On his return to the U-boat bases in France, Würdemann composed an insightful assessment of the reasons for his boat's successes. Having set forth from Lorient on April 6, he returned two months and ten days later during which time his boat had travelled 11,249 nautical miles of which 877 were submerged. U-506 had sunk ten vessels totaling over sixty thousand tons of which nearly fifty-six thousand were sunk in the Gulf of Mexico. Würdemann attributed his success to two simple things: "We surprised the enemy and found him unprepared." (35) Among the weakneses of the Americans, he specified three in particular: their failure to establish systematic observation of the sea; the absence of conveying; and their failure to implement zigzagging.

During late May and early June four more boats operated in the Gulf. U-103 (Winter) was in the Yucatan Channel; U-753 (von Mannstein) replaced Schacht and Würdemann in the passes of the Mississippi; U-106 (Rasch) operated south of Mobile; U-158 (Rostin) entered the Caribbean, proceeded through the Yucatan Channel to the mouth of the Mississippi, and finally marched west to attack vessels leaving Mexican ports.

Three developments during this period influenced the war in the Gulf: the introduction of the type XIV submarine tanker, the entry of Mexico into the war and the embryonic introduction of the convoy system. Submarine tankers, or "milch cows" made it possible for U-boats to operate for longer periods and thus in more remote areas such as the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, the South Atlantic, and eventually around the Cape of Good Hope in the western Indian Ocean. (36) Refueling could extend the operation of a U-boat by a couple of weeks. The larger Type IX U-boats that generally were operating in the Gulf of Mexico could take up their stations off New Orleans, Galveston, or even Tampico and Vera Cruz and remain there until they had expended their complement of torpedoes and ammunition.

Mexico was now more directly threatened than previously, and it would be the sinking of two Mexican tankers that would prompt her to declare war against the Axis. In mid-May a Mexican vessel, the Protrero del Llano was torpedoed and sunk off Miami Beach, followed a week later by the sinking of yet another ship, the Faja de Oro, in the eastern Gulf of Mexico near the Straits of Florid&

On the basis of reports from U-564, the U-boat which sank the Portrero del Llano, the German government maintained that the vessel had been in violation of international law by traveling in a war zone without lights and not having its national flag properly lighted. (37) The American press, on the other hand, reported that the Mexican ship had been fully illuminated, and that the sub had stalked the vessel for half an hour before firing the fatal torpedo. (38)

These episodes inexorably led toward a break in relations. There were demonstrations against German businesses and citizens. Axis residents along Mexico's Gulf coast were informed by President Avilo Camacho's government that they were to be moved into the interior and would probably be interned. Mexico's Navy Minister promised a speedup in the construction of twenty-five torpedo patrol boats to protect shipping in the Gulf. (39) Before the month of May was out the Mexican senate had voted fifty-three to nothing to declare war on the Axis powers. German U-boats were informed on June 1, 1942, that from henceforth Mexican naval and air forces were to be regarded as hostile. (40) The entry of Mexico into the war produced closer cooperation between its defense forces and those of the United States in the months which followed.

The most effective defensive measure against U-boat attacks was, of course, the organization of convoys. Coastal patrol by destroyers, Coast Guard cutters, small picket ships, flying boats, land planes, and blimps helped some, especially planes, which even if spotted by U-boats at great distance would often cause a U-boat to dive. But most of these measures were relatively ineffective.

Some measures were not only ineffective but ludicrous and foolhardy. One such was Ernest Hemingway's private effort to defeat the Germans singlehandedly. With the assistance of the American embassy in Havana, Hemingway obtained enough fifty-caliber machine guns, bazookas, and grenades to convert his fishing boat, the Pilar, into a disguised gunship - like the Q-boats of World War I. (41) He and his crew, sometimes including two of his sons, cruised up and down the Old Bahama Channel on Cuba's northern shore hoping to catch a napping sub on the surface. Alas, they saw only one sub all summer and that was far out of range.

More effective were the measures taken by the new commander of the Gulf Sea Frontier and the Seventh Naval District, Rear Admiral James Lawrence Kauffman, who arrived in Key West in late May. 12 Many of the steps to be taken were quite obvious, but what was needed was an able administrator to put them into effect. Kauffman had a no-nonsense reputation for being hardworking, aggressive, and organized. In World War I he had gained experience in anti-submarine activities and, most recently, had been sent to Iceland to establish an American base which played a vital role in defending convoys supplying Britain and Russia. In a front page story, "Hardbitten Sub Foe Handed Job of Making Gulf Waters Safe," Mobile's Press Register expressed hope that the convoy methods employed by the Iceland command would succeed in reducing casualties in the Gulf Sea Frontier. (43)

Upon arrival at Seventh Naval District Headquarters Admiral Kauffman began taking action immediately. Because the Keys were too remote, and communications with the mainland too fragile, he moved the administrative offices to a more spacious facility in Miami, which provided better communications with air and naval bases in the Gulf Sea Frontier. The dimout which had been in effect on the Atlantic coast to the Florida Panhandle was extended to Texas, and the navy was ordered to patrol the coast to ensure compliance. (44)

In his first communication with naval forces in the Gulf Sea Frontier, Admiral Kauffman told them their first job was to "sink submarines." (45) Admiral Kauffman did not have long to wait. On June 13, after being pursued through the Old Bahama Channel by the Key West Killer Group, including three destroyers and B-18's, U-157 was finally sunk by the Coast Guard cutter Thetis. (46) Six weeks later near the Mississippi Delta, U-166 would be sunk by a Coast Guard plane from Houma, Louisiana. In order to combat submarines more effectively in the Gulf of Mexico, a coastal bomber task force was established under the command of Colonel Louis Merrick. (47)

In response to congressional criticism over losses in the Gulf of Mexico and to reassure public opinion, Secretary of Navy Knox promised to build three thousand small boats a month to combat the U-boat menace in the Gulf. (48) Alabama congressman Boykin had been one of the major proponents of a small boat called the "Aqua Bomber" powered by automobile engines and capable of carrying two or three depth charges. Vice Admiral Russell Waesche, Commandant of the Coast Guard, announced he had been consulting with national yachting organizations to seek their help in spotting U-boats in American waters. Desperate measures indeed seemed to be in order.

Based on the very promising assessments by the first wave of U-boat captains who operated in the Gulf, Doenitz sent additional submarines and the height of the underwater war in the Gulf was reached in June and early July. Between June 7 and July 21 at least seven U-boats operated in the Gulf of Mexico. Among them they sank no less than twenty-eight vessels amounting to more than 130,000 tons. Three U-boats in particular enjoyed outstanding success. U-67 under the command of Müller-Stöckheim who specialized in shallow water operations and who cruised from the Tortugas, off Appalachicola, and over to the Mississippi passes, sank seven vessels in the Gulf for 44,856 tons. (49) U-158 sank nearly 38,000 tons and U-129 sank over 20,000 tons.

The establishment of convoys would bring the U-boat offensive in the Americas to an end. On America's east coast the combination of convoys as well as reinforced defenses inflicted such unacceptable U-boat losses on the Germans, that on July 19 Admiral Doenitz ordered the withdrawal of the last two U-boats from the Cape Hatteras area, (50) However, he was prepared to continue committing boats to the Caribbean and to the Gulf as long as conditions were more favorable, (i.e.) where traffic consisting of single, unescorted ships continued.

It was probably not before mid-July that any significant coordinated convoy system was established by Admiral Kauffman. The earliest German encounter with a Gulf convoy is recorded in Doenitzs war diary on May 31. Commander Poske whose U-504 had just entered the Gulf of Mexico and was due west of Cuba spotted a convoy consisting of a two-funneued passenger ship, two freighters, and three destroyers heading for Yucatan or perhaps Tampico. (51) Intermittently, convoys were sighted in the Florida Straits or north of Cuba. On July 16 Mobile's Press Register reported that the convoy system had been inaugurated in the Gulf-Caribbean sea lanes which were also being patrolled by war-ships, bombers, and blimps.

By the end of July Doenitz knew that convoys had become a fact of life in the Gulf. Reporting from near the passes of the Mississippi, U-171 spotted a convoy of eleven vessels close to the coastline. The sudden arrival of a plane forced the sub to dive. By the time U-171 surfaced, the convoy had already entered the mouth of the Mississippi. (53) U-171 was not only the last of the successful U-boats in the Gulf in the late summer of 1942, it also probably set a record for length of time spent in the Gulf. On July 26 it sank its first victim and another ship two weeks later both at the mouth of the Mississippi. Its final target was a tanker, the Amatlan torpedoed on September 4 off the coast of Mexico. (54)

The days of the easy kills off American coasts had ended. Although short lived, the U-boat war in the Gulf of Mexico during 1942 proved momentarily profitable. It had been clearly coneived as only a subsidiary operation in German naval strategy, but catching the Americans, the British in the Bahamas, the Cubans, and the Mexicans off guard, the U-boats destroyed much valuable shipping at an acceptable cost. Rohwer has calculated fifty-eight vessels were sunk by German submarines between May and September, of which twenty-eight were tankers. Actually, there may have been even more ships sunk which have not been reconciled with either German or American records. (55)

Despite the fact that access to the Gulf of Mexico is confined to narrow straits and that its coastal waters are relatively shallow, therefore making it a potentially hazardous body of water in which to operate U-boats, German losses were at first minimal and acceptable. U-boats had been able to enter and depart through the Straits of Florida and the Yucatan Channel almost at will, especially during May and early June. Only two U-boats were sunk in the Gulf during the 1942 campaign - one, U-157, sunk in the Straits of Florida in mid-June and the other, U-166, sunk in the passes of the Mississippi in early August. 16 Such losses were tolerable, although as time passed it grew clear that the ratio of merchant sinkings to U-boat losses was clearly shifting in favor of withdrawal from the Gulf of Mexico.

Another, but peripheral factor, which might have hastened the withdrawal of U-boats from the Gulf in the late summer was the morale of the crews. Anyone who has seen the classic film Das Boot can imagine the tension of life within a U-boat. In the Gulf of Mexico boats also had to contend with stifling heat and rampant mildew. In his final report to Admiral Doenitz, Würdemann of U-506, praised his "young, and for the most part inexperienced crew" for proving itself "capable." (57) He went on to write that his boat had altogether spent about two weeks underwater, lying on the bottom or travelling submerged, about sixteen hours per day in which temperatures inside the boat reached about 35 degrees Celsius, that is, 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

Staats of U-508, operating in the Gulf during August, commented extensively his war diary about the impact on his crew. While attempting to the effects of heat, especially in the engine room, he conceded that the physical condition of the crew left much to be desired some of the time - emaciation, boils and especially prurient rashes." (58) Fortunately, he wrote, the weight loss and the boils "disappeared for the most part on their own" when the crew had an opportunity to get some sunshine and fresh air in the Atlantic on the return voyage.

Probably these factors were only incidental matters of concern for the U- boat command. Even after operations ceased in the Gulf of Mexico, tropical missions continued particularly along the African coast off Freetown which was serving as an assembly point for convoys from the Indian Ocean and South Africa. Nonetheless, morale decisions were not insignificant and perhaps played a minor role in the decision to shift the focal point of intercepting shipping from the Americas back to the North Atlantic.

Attention was shifted to the convoys in the North Atlantic and to those steaming up the African coast from Capetown and Freetown. The U-boat offensive in the Gulf of Mexico had ended, but it had inflicted a staggering cost upon the Allies. Victory, in fact, was not yet in sight. Churchill, writing to President Roosevelt on October 31, remained fearful of the U-boat war. "This, I am sure, is our worst danger." (59)


(1) Forty-one ships of 219, 867 gross tons were sunk. Samuel Elliot Morrison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, vol. 1, The Battle of the Atlantic, September 1939-May 1943 (Boston, 1948),142.

(2) Ibid., 144.

(3) These figures are extracted from Jürgen Rohwer, Axis Sumarine Successes, 1939- 1945 (Annapolis, 1983), translated from Die U-Boots Erfolge de Achsenmächte 1939-1945 (München, 1968),93-120.

(4) Admiral Doenitz, Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days,trans. R. H. Stevens (Westport, CT, 1976), 223.

(5) Ibid., 150.

(6) "The Fuehrer agrees with the Commander in Chief, Navy that victory depends on destroying the greatest amount of Allied tonnage possible." Germany, Kriegsmarine, Oberecommando, Fuehrer Conferences of Matters Dealing with the German Navy, microfilm (Washington, DC, n.d.), April 13, 1942. (Hereafter cited as Fuerhrer Naval Conferences.)

(7) Doenitz, Memoirs, 46-47.

(8)Fuehrer Naval Conferences, March 12,1942 and April 16, 1942.

(9) Ibid., December 29, 1941.

(10) Kreigstagebuch des Befehelshaber der Unterseeboote, in Records Relating to U-Boat Warfare, 1939-1945, microfilm, T-1022, Reel 3979/PG30307/a, May 1, 1942, National Archives. This is the "war diary" of the Commanding Admiral of U-boats, Karl Doenitz. The PG number was assigned by the British microfilmers and it refers to a group of documents usually arranged chronologically. Unlike German documents filmed in the United States , the British did not assign individual frame numbers for each page. Rather they assiged a number to groups of documents which was "pinched" (hence, PG) after Germany's defeat in 1945. (Hereafter cited as Doenitz KTB.)

(11)Fuehrer Naval Conferences, December 12,1941.

(12) Peter Cremer, U-Boat Commander (Berlin, 1982; Annapolis, 1984).

(13)Fuehrer Naval Conferences, March 12,1942.

(14) Doenitz KTB, 3979/PG30306/ a, Apil 15,1942.

(15) It was not until May 15, 1942, that a Convoy and Routing Section of the Chief of Naval Operations was established, headed by Rear Admiral M. K. Metcalf. See Morrison, Battle of the Atlantic 1: 206.

(16) Doenitz KTB, Reel 3979/PG30306/ a, April 15,1942.

(17) Fuehrer Naval Conferences, May 14,1942.

(18) Kriegstagebuch U-507, in Records Relating to U-Boat Warfare, 1939-1945, microfilm, T- 1022, Reel 3066/PG30545 /2, April 4, 1942, National Archives. (Hereafter cited as KTB U-507.)

(19) Kriegstagebuch U-506, National Archives, Records Relating to U-Boat Warfare, 1939-1945, microfilm, T-1022, Reel 3066/PG30566/2, April 6, 1942. (Hereafter cited as KTB U-506.)

(20) KTB U-507, Reel 3066/PG30545/2, May 3, 1942.

(21) Mobile Press Register, June 27, 1942.

(22) KTB U-507, Reel 3066/PG30545/2, May 5,1942.

(23) KTB U-506, Reel 3066/PG30566/2, May 10, 1942.

(24) Mobile Press Register June 21, 1942.

(25) Ibid., May 4,1942.

(26) Ibid., June 1, 1942.

(27) Ibid., May 10, 1942.

(28) Alan Hynd, Passport to Treason: The Inside Story of Spies in America (New York, 1943); Eugene Rachlin, They Came to Kill. The Story of Eight Nazi Saboteurs in America (New York, 1961). Leon 0. Prior, "Nazi invasion of Florida," Florida Historical Quarterly,49, no. 2 (1970): 129-39.

(29) Mobile Press Register, July 3,1942.

(30) Ibid., May 17, 1942; June 28, 1942.

(31) KTB U-507, Reel 3066/PG30545/2, May 13, 1942. For a discussion of the problems with torpedoes, see Doenitz, Memiors, 84-99 and Appendix. 3: Naval High Command (Raeder), Memorandum No. 85/a/42, Secet Command Document. The problem with the pistol mechanism first came to light in the 1940 Norwegian campaign, and it was not fully understood until early 1942. A newly designed firing mechanism(a Pi magnetic pistol) was installed on torpedoes from December 1942. Circling torpedoes and acoustic torpedoes were further innovations made in 1942.

(32) U-506 described attacking some silhouetted vessels at night although it is unclear whether they were set off against an illuminated coastline or whether the sea was illuminated. U-507 reported to Berlin that, in any event, there was no taffic at night. KTB U-506, Reel 3066/PG30566/2, May 17, 1942; and Doenitz KTB, Reel 3979/PG30307/a, May 12,1942.

(33) KTB U-507, Reel 3066/PG30545/2, May 12, 1942; and Doenitz KTB, Reel 3979/PG30307/a, May 12,1942.

(34) Doenitz KTB, Reel 3979/PG 30307/b, May 20,1942.

(35) KTB U-506, Reel 3066/PG30566/2, June 15, 1942.

(36) Doenitz KTB, T-1022, Reel 3979/PG30306/b, April 25, 1942; Fuehrer Naval Conferences, May 14,1942; Doenitz, Memoirs, 219; Doenitz KTB, Reel 3980/PG30309/a, July 1, 1942.

(37) Doenitz KTB, Reel 3979/PG30307/a, May 14,1942.

(38) Mobile Press Register, May 15,1942.

(39) Mobile Press Register, May 28, 1942; also see Blanco Torres Ramirez, Historia de la revolución mexicana, vol.19: Mexico en la segunda guerra mundial(Mexico City, 1979), 69-70.

(40) KTB U-507, Reel 3066/PG30545/2, June 1, 1942.

(41) I am indebted to my colleague Hines H. Hall for reminding me of Hemingway's madcap scheme. See Carlos Baker, Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (New York, 1988), 150; Morrison, The Battle of the Atlantic, 202-65, for an introduction to this topic and for a sketch of Kauffman's career.

(42) Mobile Press Register, May 31, 1942; also see Morrison, "The Oganization of Anti-Submarine Warfare 1939-1942," in The Battle of the Atlantic, 202-65, for an introduction to this topic and for a sketch of Kauffman's career.

(43) Ibid., May 31, 1942.

(44) Mobile Press Register, June 13,1942.

(45) Ibid., June 6, 1942.

(46) Malcolm F. Willoughby, The U.S. Coast Guard in World War II (Annapolis, 1957), 197; Edwin P. Hoyt, Death of the U-Boats (New York, 1988), 150; Morrison, The Battle of the Atlantic, 142-44.

(47) Willoughby, U.S. Coast Guard, 43, 198.

(48) Mobile Press Register, July 8, 1942.

(49) For the insight that Muller-Stockheim specialized in shallow water operations, I am grateful to Carl Vought of Huntsville. For U-67's operations, see KTB U-67, in Records Relating to U-Boat Warfare, 1939-1945, microfilm, T-1022, Reel 3030/PG30664/5, March 31- August 8, 1942, National Archives. Also C. J. Crist of Houma, LA, who has assembled an important private collection of the U-boat materials, has generously provided insights into the tactics and personalities of U-boat commanders.

(50) Doenitz KTB, Reel 3980/PG30309/b, July 19, 1942.

(51) Doenitz KTB, Reel 3979/PG30307/b, May 31,1942.

(52) Mobile Press Register, July 16,1942.

(53) Doenitz KTB, Reel 3980/PG30309/b, July 31, 1942.

(54) Doenitz KTB, Reel 3980 / PG3031 1, September 5, 1942.

(55) For example, see Mobile Press Register, story of May 30, 1942, entitled "Cargo Ship Sunk by Sub in Gulf." This dispatch describes the sinkig during the night of May 18 of a vessel proceeding blacked out through the Gulf of Mexico on a zigzag course. Purportedly, three topedoes struck and mortally crippled this unidentified ship. Subsequently, the submaine surfaced and approached the sinkig vessel but asked no questions. The survivors were rescued and brought to Mobile. There is, however, no German record of any ship sunk in the Gulf that night. U-125, operating to the west of Grand Cayman, sank a ship on the night of the eighteenth, but it is highly improbable that these two incidents would have been confused.

(56) Hoyt, Death of the U-Boats, 210-11.

(57) KTB U-506, Reel 3066/PG30566/2, June 15,1942.

(58) KTB U-508, Reel 3066/PG30546/1, June 15, 1942.

(59) Churchill to Roosevelt, October 31, 1942, in Francis T. Loewenheim, ed., Roosevelt and Churchill: Their best Wartime Correspondence(New York, 1975), 262 ff.

Dr. Allen Cronenberg is a professor of history at Auburn University. (War Eagle!)

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