Imagine the following scenario: A bloody war rages overseas as a fanatical, totalitarian ideology conquers entire countries. The U.S. government announces it will send military forces abroad to stem the tide of the aggression. Despite increasingly dire news headlines, however, life in America proceeds uneventfully.
After all, America is thousands of miles from the battlefields and surely far beyond the enemy’s immediate reach.
That sense of security abruptly ends only weeks later when the enemy suddenly launches a fearsome assault against the U.S. homeland itself. Thousands die as American cities witness explosions and raging infernos. Worse yet, the U.S. military seems powerless to stop the assault.
If that story sounds far-fetched, it shouldn’t. It isn’t the plot of Call of Duty– the scenario described above actually happened during World War II. December 1941 saw the U.S. finally join the war against Germany, Japan, and Italy. Many Americans understandably assumed that geography insulated them from any direct threat.
However, while U.S. leaders in Washington debated how to deploy their forces overseas, Adolf Hitler made the first move. In January 1942, Hitler’s forces began a massive naval offensive against the U.S. east coast.
The German navy, or Kriegsmarine, lacked a formidable surface fleet. What the Kriegsmarine did possess, however, was a technologically and tactically sophisticated submarine force: the infamous unterseeboots, or “U-boats.”
The U-boats had proven deadly in World War I, to include a limited number of attacks near the U.S. east coast, but the scale of the U-boat offensive against America in 1942 was without precedent. Only weeks after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, war had come to the American homeland.
Rendition of the U-995
(oil painting by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau)
Cargo ships and even U.S. Navy warships began going down in flames. Many vessels were torpedoed within sight of coastal cities. Coastal residents saw the ships burning off the Jersey Shore and the Outer Banks. Debris and bodies washed ashore for months as the U-boats struck from New England to Texas.
U-boat commanders returning to port in occupied Europe reported that U.S. waters offered more targets than the U-boats had the means to attack. The easy hunting lead German crews to dub 1942 die glückliche zeit: “the happy time.”
(Alamy Stock Photos)
Compounding the fear and destruction was America’s apparent inability to stop it. A combination of factors limited the U.S. military’s ability to stop the U-boats. These included a shortage of warships suited to anti-submarine operations, a lack of convoy procedures, and a reluctance to implement nighttime blackouts of coastal cities to deny U-boat commanders the benefit of ship silhouettes to target.
While U.S. leaders debated how to stem the onslaught, the Kriegsmarine dispatched more waves of U-boats to North America. Hundreds of ships were sunk, and thousands died as desperately needed war material was sent to the bottom of the Atlantic.
The U-123, one of the German subs that prowled the American coast in 1942.
(German Federal Archives)
Fortunately, 1942 would prove to be the apex of Hitler’s U-boat assault against America. The Allies began implementing convoys, and more American air and naval assets were allocated to anti-submarine duties.
These changes eventually led the Kriegsmarine to shift its priorities away from American coasts towards the mid-Atlantic. U-boats would continue to strike in American waters until the end of the war, but the scope and effectiveness of their operations steadily decreased. U-boat losses mounted too as the hunters eventually became the prey.
The U-boat fleet, considered one of the most prestigious assignments for a German serviceman, ultimately suffered the German military’s highest casualties: 3 out of 4 U-boat crewmen did not survive the war.
The crew of the U-550 abandons ship after being crippled by a U.S. Coast Guard attack off Massachusetts in April 1944.
(U.S. Coast Guard photo)
U.S. waters today are littered with the wrecks of U-boats and their victims. Many of these wrecks have become popular sites amongst scuba divers. This chapter of World War II, however, has mostly disappeared from American public memory.
This is to our discredit, as the memory of Hitler’s naval assault against America bears several important lessons for a post-9/11 world. These lessons include the naiveté of assuming that large oceans can be counted on to deter foreign aggression and a sobering reminder of what a small but motivated and capable force can inflict on a much larger power.
The thousands of men lost during this forgotten campaign is a testament to the human cost of global conflict and its ramifications for national security in the 21st century.