On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Empire launched a surprise attack on the US Navy stationed at Pearl Harbor, killing thousands of American sailors and dragging the United States into the Second World War. The attack has become infamous; unprovoked, it spurred a righteous anger and a lust for revenge that helped sustain the public’s morale during the darkest hours of the greatest war in history. In the popular consciousness, the attack on Pearl Harbor was the last time an enemy had struck such a blow against the United States on its home soil until 9/11. It’s a popular idea, but like many popular ideas it’s wrong.
In World War II alone, there was more than one instance where America’s enemies penetrated her borders. The Japanese, as a part of a grand offensive across the Pacific, took a lonely island on the tip of Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain (to be fair though, Alaska wasn’t a state at the time.) Again, the Japanese attacked the American homeland later in the war with a series of ingenious if ultimately ineffective balloon attacks.
Strangely enough though, the most deadly attacks in American territory were not executed by the Japanese, but by their allies, the Nazis. Nazi Germany had promised the Japanese that if America declared war on Japan, Germany would declare war on America. After FDR famously declared war on December 8, Hitler declared war on the US on December 11. Before that, the US had been supplying Britain with much needed war materiel under the Lend-Lease Act. This gave the US some experience dealing with the German U-boat Wolfpacks prowling the Atlantic. This experience, however, would not prepare them for what was to come. After the declaration of war, all restrictions on Nazi U-boats were lifted. Vizeadmiral Karl Donitze ordered his U-boats to execute an audacious attack on US shipping, taking the war right to the US east coast. The attacks–dubbed Operation Drumbeat–would account for a quarter of all shipping lost during the war and claim the lives of more than 5,000 American sailors.
“The Second Happy Time.”
The initial phases of Operation Drumbeat were executed using Type IX U-boats. Bigger and more cumbersome than their leaner counterparts who caused so much havoc among shipping convoys in the mid-Atlantic, the Type IX were nonetheless ideal for work along the US coast because they could easily be outfitted for long voyages. The Nazis only possessed a dozen of the big boats, and seven were engaged in other operations, so only five would make the two week voyage across the Atlantic to perform the opening phases of the operation. Interestingly enough, while the operation was conducted in the utmost secrecy, British intelligence picked up routine transmissions the boats made when leaving the Bay of Biscay and were able to accurately follow the progress of the task force across the Atlantic. They were able to give a warning to Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander in Chief of the US Fleet, that the German subs were on the way, but little was done to counter the threat. Admiral King was occupied with the Japanese in the Pacific. Besides, the so-called “North Atlantic Coastal Frontier” wasn’t completely undefended; Rear Admiral Adolphus Andrews commanded a fleet in the area responsible for the security of coastal shipping. The only problem was that the fleet was made up of a motley assortment of Coast Guard cutters, converted yachts, and other assorted vintage boats that were more fit for a museum than modern naval combat. Also, what few planes available to Andrews were too small and short ranged to have much effect against what was coming.
As if all that weren’t bad enough, Andrews and other naval officials refused to listen to advice from the British, who had dealt with the Nazi menace for more than two years. The British advised Andrews that merchant ships ought to travel in convoys, even if they lacked an armed escort ship. Hard experience had shown the British that ships in convoys, even unarmed ones, were more likely to survive a U-boat attack. Also, ships should change up their routes. Coastal towns and cities should black out their lights, to make it more difficult for U-boats to spot ships backlit at night against city lights. Andrews and others ignored the advice, partially because Andrews was convinced that grouping ships into convoys would only provide more targets for enemy U-boats, and partially because a black out order would harm commerce and tourism on the East Coast.
What followed was dubbed by the German’s as “The Second Happy Time,” so named because from January to August of 1942, German U-boats managed to inflict devastating losses on American shipping with little to no risk to their own forces (the “First Happy Time” was from 1940 to 1941 during the first phase of the war in the Atlantic.) To use the old cliche, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.
“Loose Lips Sink Ships.”
Once again, American response to the devastation was inadequate at best. Despite east coast dockyards manufacturing destroyers capable of at least blunting the effects of the U-boat assault, they sat in harbor while off-shore merchant ships sank under German U-boat fire. More waves of Nazi boats came to US coastal waters after the initial assault; the remaining Type IX, and the smaller Type VII, specially outfitted for the trip by filling tanks normally reserved for drinking water with diesel fuel.
While the American leadership bungled the response to the threat, civilians no doubt began to notice all the ships blowing up off the coast. Propaganda and secrecy was the order of the day; rather than take practical steps to deter the threat, the US Navy was content to use propaganda to cover up the attacks in order to preserve public morale. The now famous phrase “Loose lips sink ships” originated during this propaganda effort, less to keep US naval secrets from leaking into the hands of German spies and more to keep US citizens quiet about what they were seeing out their windows. The cover up was so effective that Operation Drumbeat and its devastating effectiveness still remains largely unknown to this day.
Slowly, US forces got their act together. They adopted British recommendations piecemeal at first, implementing a limited convoy system in April 1942 and restricting shipping to daylight hours. By mid-May, full convoys were trawling the waters of the East Coast, and the British helpfully offered corvettes specially built for anti-submarine warfare, along with planes designed to combat the U-boat menace. Gradually, the Nazi wolfpacks began to move away from the East Coast as defenses grew tougher. Operation Drumbeat ended with only 7 German U-boats lost, but these minimal losses were enough to repel the aggressors and push the war away from American shores.
Helgason, Gudmundur. “Operation Drumbeat.” Uboat.net. March 31, 1997. Uboat.net. June 23, 2014 http://www.uboat.net/ops/drumbeat.htm
“Operation Drumbeat–the informalname for a phase in the Second Battle of the Atlantic during which Axis submarines attacked merchant shipping.” WarHistoryOnline.com. August 17, 2013. War History Online. June 23, 2014. http://www.warhistoryonline.com/war-articles/operation-drumbeat-informal-phase-battle-atlantic-axis-submarines-attacked-merchant-shipping.html