World War 2 History: The Second Happy Time—German U-Boats Feeding Off US Coast
U-Boats Based in France
The period from July to October 1940 during World War Two was called the "Happy Time" by German submariners as their U-boats attacked merchant traffic approaching Britain before effective British countermeasures evened the odds. After the US entered the war, U-boats were sent to US coastal waters where, much to their astonishment, they enjoyed even more success. The Germans called this period, from January to August 1942, before American countermeasures became effective, the Second Happy Time.
German Admiral Donitz
Immediately following Germany's declaration of war against the US on December 11, 1941, German U-boat commander Admiral Karl Dönitz implemented Operation Paukenschlag (“Operation Drumbeat”). Due to pressures on him to continue attacks in the East Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea, only five of the larger long-distance type IX U-boats were available initially. They were outfitted in their new bases in Brittany France, every spare space utilized to hold fuel and food and then sent to US coastal waters from Maine to North Carolina. The British picked up their signals and warned the US but very little was done.
American Admiral King
A Submariner's Dream
What the U-boats found was a submariner's dream. Despite the U-boat commanders having little beyond tourist maps to assist them, it seemed the Americans did everything but invite them into their harbors. There existed no strategy or plan for dealing with the threat. Freighters plied their merry way up and down the coast seemingly oblivious to the the danger, usually running fully lit at night. There was no blackout imposed on the coastal cities, giving the U-boats perfect silhouettes of their prey against the lights at night, their favorite hunting time. Even the lighthouses continued to blaze away, immeasurably aiding the U-boats in establishing their position. The British suggested that merchant ships should sail in convoys-- even unescorted convoys were safer than lone ships. They also stressed that ships should not stick to obvious routes and schedules and, of course, a strict blackout of cities, lighthouses and navigational markers should be implemented immediately. None of this happened. The US Admiral in charge, Admiral Ernest King, was an Anglophobe and ignored all advice from a country he loathed.
Understandably, there was a severe shortage of ships and planes to patrol the coast, given that the US had just entered the war and had to fight the Japanese Navy in the Pacific as well as commitments further out in the Atlantic. To cover the coast from Maine to North Carolina, King had seven Coast Guard cutters, thirteen other old ships-- some wooden-- and about 100 short-range aircraft, suitable for training only. Other, larger aircraft, were under the control of the U.S. Army Air Force and there was little cooperation between the navy and the air force.
Victim Off the Coast of Florida
Victim Off US East Coast
On the Hunt
On January 12, 1942, U-boat 123 sank the first freighter 300 miles off the Massachusetts' coast. The hunt was on. For the next month, the five subs stalked their prey, sinking 23 ships for a total of about 150,000 tons. There was very little response. The Americans still insisted on sending out their anti-submarine vessels to actively search for the U-boats instead of escorting the U-boats' targets and having the U-boats come to them. They found nothing. The U-boats, to save precious torpedoes, would sometimes even surface and shell cargo ships with their 88-mm cannon. By February, with their supplies of food and ammunition nearly depleted, the five U-boats returned to France. Still the city lights blazed and still the merchant ships were on their own, some, incredibly, still fully lit up. Offers of civilian help in the form of ships and aircraft were turned down by Admiral King, though a propaganda campaign was launched: the famous “Loose lips sink ships” posters were distributed. It is suggested that this was meant to keep the public from discussing the losses amongst themselves and comparing notes more than keeping information from enemy ears.
Shortly thereafter, Dönitz sent a second wave of type IX U-boats and extended their hunting grounds all the way down to Florida. The U.S. waters were so target rich, he even sent in smaller type VII U-boats.-- though this required packing them to overflowing with food and fuel, holding fuel in freshwater tanks and crossing the Atlantic at slow speed to conserve fuel. During February and March, the slaughter continued and grew as the U-boats grew even more brazen; sometimes their attacks were within sight of land. On February 28, U-578 managed to sink the destroyer USS Jacob Jones.
It wasn't until April 14 that the destroyer USS Roper sank the first U-boat, U-85.
Type VII U-Boat
Slowly, measures were being implemented to combat the U-boats. More anti-submarine ships were added to the defense; Admiral King even allowed British ships to help. Merchant ships were organized into convoys and escorted during the day and would shelter in harbors at night. This slowed but did not stop the losses. Ships were routed 300 miles off the coast, but the U-boats found them anyway. By the end of April, the U.S. Navy finally took control of merchant shipping and developed more detailed plans. Transporting oil, a favorite U-boat target, was temporarily halted, resulting in severe shortages. The Germans also sent U-boats along the Gulf Coast looking for easier prey. The U.S. Navy phased in a true convoy system with escorts, which the British had pushed since day one. By July 1942, U-boat attacks had been cut to a third due to less targets of opportunity while their own losses started rising-- they lost three in July alone. But it wasn't until July that the coast was blacked out at nighttime, making it more difficult for the U-boats to see their targets and get their bearings.
By August, with targets much harder to find and attack and mounting U-boat losses, Dönitz called back his fleet, ending the Second Happy Time.
During the seven months of the Second Happy Time (the Germans also called it the “American Shooting Season”), U-boats sank 20% of the tanker fleet and disrupted the supply of Allied oil, food and other materiel. It was a convincing German strategic victory, even if it was the last one. The first Happy Time, which had been devastating to the British, had lasted nearly four months and resulted in 282 ships sunk, a loss of 1.5 million tons. The Second Happy Time lasted seven months and resulted in 609 ships sunk, a loss of 3.1 million tons. More than 5,000 seamen and passengers lost their lives. Only 22 U-boats were lost.
The American Merchant Marine suffered the highest death of any service during World War Two. Of the 243,000 who served, 9,500 were killed, or 1 in 26.
Service Number Serving War Dead Percent Ratio
Merchant Marine 243,000 9,521 3.90% 1 in 26
Marines 669,108 19,733 2.94% 1 in 34
Army 11,268,000 234,874 2.08% 1 in 48
Navy 4,183,466 36,958 0.88% 1 in 114
Coast Guard 242,093 574 0.24% 1 in 421
Total 16,576,667 295,790 1.78% 1 in 56
Admiral Karl Dönitz (1891 – 1980) went on to become President and Commander of the Armed Forces after Hitler committed suicide. Propaganda Minister Goebbels was anointed German Chancellor, but killed himself hours later, leaving Dönitz the sole leader. He ruled Germany for 20 days, ordering Germany's surrender to the Allies. Though convicted of planning and waging wars of aggression and crimes against the laws of war, he was not convicted of any actual war crimes (Allied submarines had acted in a similar manner) and was imprisoned for ten years. He lived the rest of his life in obscurity in Aumuhle, Germany until his death in 1980.
Admiral Ernest King (1878 - 1956) was promoted to Fleet Admiral, the U.S. Navy's second most senior officer, in 1944 and served in that capacity until he left active duty in 1945. He suffered a severe stroke in 1947 and died in 1956.
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© 2012 David Hunt