Saturday, December 18, 2010

69 Years Ago- The Second Happy Time

69 years ago today, the first of five German U-Boats sailed to begin commerce-raiding operations off the east coast of the United States.

The U-boats were able to sink so many ships with so few German losses that the period from the arrival of the U-boats to about August of 1942 became known as the "Second Happy Time".

The reaction of the US Navy to the U-boat campaign, as well as the local governments in coastal cities, bordered on criminal neglect and dereliction of duty.

The Navy fought the institution of a coastal convoy system, despite the lessons learned during both the First World War and the high losses the British suffered at the onset of the Second World War. The Navy was extremely slow to react and resisted the formation of civilian aerial antisubmarine patrols (a measure that proved to be an extremely effective countermeasure). Until the Navy pulled its collective thumb out of its ass, many merchant vessels were sunk, most with the loss of their crews.

Merchant ships sailing independently tried hopping from anchorage to anchorage, sailing only in darkness. The U-boats were able to see ships operating inshore silhouetted by the lights of towns and cities. Civilian governments resisted the institution of a coastal blackout, because the local governments feared the impact of a blackout on their merchants, preferring to see ships on the horizon burning from U-boat attacks.

Keep in mind that although the film stock from the war shows the U-boats executing torpedo attacks, U-boats sank a lot of ships by surfacing and firing on those ships with their deck guns, because submarines of the day carried maybe 12-20 torpedoes. Surfaced U-boats were vulnerable to air attack; the later formation of the Civil Air Patrol, light aircraft armed with small bombs, forced the U-boats to discontinue surface attacks.

Between the CAP flights, convoying and Navy blimp patrols, merchant sinkings went down and U-boat losses climbed, making operations off the U.S. coast a lot more hazardous for the U-boat crews.


BadTux said...

OMG, the government allowed CAP flights to have *BOMBS* back then? That would never be allowed today, because our government is too scared of the citizenry, I mean, you think a government so scared of the citizenry that they won't let us have *nail clippers* on planes would allow *bombs*?! What if one of those CAP flights dropped their bomb on an IRS building or something? OMG! No no, better to let ships sink!

- Badtux the "Hmm, what kind of government is scared of the people?" Penguin

Comrade Misfit said...

Yeah. There was one U-boat commander who, when interviewed after the war (or his capture), said that the worst thing about combat patrols off the American coast was "all of those fucking little yellow and red airplanes."

People have forgotten that those early U-boats were submersibles, not true submarines. They went far faster, with more effectiveness and in more comfort if they could operate surfaced. They had a far better visual search horizon if they were on the surface, rather than one man peering through a periscope.

Charles Pergiel said...

Submersible, not submarine? What makes a true submarine?

BadTux said...

Charles, it wasn't until late in the war that the Germans developed the snorkel, which allowed them to operate submerged for extended periods of time. Until that development, U-boats spent most of their time on the surface and did most of their attacks while surfaced, and submerged only during rare daylight attacks or while trying to evade surface warships. Their range and speed on batteries was quite limited, a few hours at best at maybe 5 knots max and they were done.

The biggest problem U-boats had was when the Allies developed radar. That, rather than escort vessels, is what forced them to develop the snorkel, because once Allied warships had radar, they could spot the oncoming U-boats at long distance. Before that, the U-boats could generally see surface warships before the surface warships saw them (due to being low in the water and small) and submerge until the surface warships were past, but after that, they were sitting ducks -- the warships could spot them first, then bracket them, ping them with sonar from multiple directions to absolutely pinpoint their location (another important development), and sink them with depth charges.

So anyhow, snorkels were what allowed U-boats to be real submarines that could operate submerged most of the time. Fortunately for us, by that time (early 1944) the Russians were kicking the stuffing out of the Germans on the Eastern Front and had cut off access to so many strategic materials that the Germans couldn't build a lot of U-boats with snorkels.

EBM can undoubtedly enlighten us more on this whole subject, but I don't *think* I misrepresented much here. U.S. submarines were just as limited, maybe moreso since they didn't have working torpedos at all until late 1943, but used similar tactics -- which continued working all the way until the end of the war and cut off strategic materials to the Japanese mainland almost entirely because the Japanese *never* got a clue.

Comrade Misfit said...


The big development was airborne radar on large 4-engined ASW patrol aircraft. Of course, that meant that the Air Force had to give up some airplanes, which they refused to do, until it was made clear to them that a lot of their supplies were being sent to the bottom by U-boats operating in the mid-Atlantic "air gap".

I define a "submarine" as a boat that can operate at least as well, if not better, submerged. Snorkels didn't help much; they were detectable by airborne radar and the subs could not really transit while snorkeling, as the snorkels would leave a "feather", as you can see periscopes doing in movie footage.

The Kriegsmarine did develop some very advanced boats, the Type XXI, aka the "Elektroboote," toward the end of the war that could outrun some of the subchasers and were capable of extended operations before surfacing. Germany made over 100 of them, but there were so many QC problems with them that maybe two or three got into the war.