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U-Boats move to the U.S. east coast

U -123 returning to the French port of Lorient after a successful patrol in 1941.

The Germans U-Boat fleet had now shifted attention from cross Atlantic convoy traffic to the coastal shipping moving up and down the east coast of the United States. Admiral Donitz had launched Operation Drumbeat with a simple objective – to sink as much Allied shipping as possible. Loss of overall tonnage, sinking ships faster than they could be built, would undermine the Allies huge advantage in productive capacity.

It became known as the ‘happy time’ amongst U-boat commanders. Ships moving up and down clearly marked shipping lanes could be attacked almost at will, at night they might be even silhouetted against the brightly lit American cities. It was to take time before the US Navy and Coast Guard were to develop the strategies and expertise to threaten them.

Reinhard Hardegen, commanding U-123, struck first on the 12th January and would sink a total of nine ships during two weeks on patrol up and down the coast. His diary for U-123’s 7th patrol records him sinking a ship on the 17th, although this dates varies from some other records:


Total: 140 nm

To date: 4048 nm

Submerged: 124 nm

Starboard ahead a light. Go for it! After a short time I can recognize a freighter of approximately 4000 GRT. 4 hatches, heavily loaded. He only shows a lamp on the first mast and darkened position lights. Course 13°, speed 11 knots. Unfortunately dawn is breaking. While overtaking I get a bit too close. On the spur of the moment I cross his bow at a distance of 600 meters, prepare the last stern torpedo and get myself into the dark horizon.

13.01 CA 5756 NW 2, 0/10, Sea 1-2, Vis. 5 nm

Fired stern torpedo. Target angle 90°, distance 750 meters. Running time 57 seconds. A very heavy detonation, strong, dark black smoke plume. Hit bridge. The steamer sinks immediately. As the smoke from the detonation cleared, only the masts were still visible above the water, and shortly thereafter sank. Water depth of 45 meters. I depart at maximum speed eastwards because the day is dawning and I need some more water under our keel during the day. Due to calm seas and a cloudless sky I decide to stay on the surface to reach Cape Hatteras fast where according to radio messages the shipping crosses.

14.58 Crash-dive for flying boat, type “Consolidated”.

16.51 Crash-dive for flying boat.

20.29 Crash-dive for land based aircraft.

22.11 Crash-dive for flying boat.

See U Boat Archive for the full report.

U-boats sank two ships, a British tanker near Long Island, New York, and an American ship near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Six other attacks by U-boats have been reported from the East American and Canadian Coast; in these attacks one ship was hit by torpedo and reached harbour, a. second was hit and abandoned but is still afloat, a third was reported sinking and a fourth was on fire from shell fire.

From the Naval Situation Report for the week as reported to the British War Cabinet, see TNA CAB 66/21/4

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