Operation Drumbeat


The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor held both surprise and promise for Germany in World War II. Admiral Dönitz, who had been previously trying to strategize a way for Germany to win the war, given that Hitler had ordered all U-boats from the Atlantic to support operations in the Mediterranean and off Gibraltar. Dönitz saw the Pearl Harbor attack as advantageous for a few reasons. First, it would force Hitler to declare war on the US since the US would now be involved in the war overseas. Second, it would divert some U-boats back to the Atlantic where he felt they could do the most good. And finally, it would allow Germany's forces to attack US ships, which beforehand were off limits because of America's neutral position. Dönitz set his gaze on the US East Coast.
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Not only would a U-boat attack off the East Coast threaten Britain's trade, it would satisfy Dönitz's desire to punish America for what he considered to be her false neutrality. Although the United States had claimed a neutral position in the war, they carried war materials and food to England, Germany's primary enemy, and they reported the sightings of U-boats to British destroyers as well. Dönitz began to plan an attack that would not only rival Pearl Harbor, it would surpass it in shipping losses and psychological repercussions.

Dönitz knew that a strike on the East Coast could increase America's vulnerability. If an initial strike was then succeeded by additional hits, commerce between the US and Britain could be seriously affected. Choking off shipments of war materials and food could seriously hamper Britain's ability to win the war. Since October 1941 Dönitz had sent U-boats to intercept British-bound convoys all the way to Newfoundland, but the US coastal waters contained more ships bound to Europe. Therefore, he began to plan a surprise attack off the US coast from New York to Florida.

pearl harborDönitz's operation would be quick and jarring, like the beat on a kettledrum. With that idea in mind, on December 10 he christened Operation Paukenschlag (Drumbeat), a surprise U-boat attack scheduled to last less than a month. Two days later, Hitler declared war on the US. Operation Paukenschlag was intended to inflict a sudden deep wound on both the US and Britain through quick, violent sinkings that would occur on the same day. The sudden massive loss would both scatter and confuse Germany's enemy.

Dönitz requested 12 long-distance Type IX boats from the Naval High Command in Berlin. The answer was disappointing: he would receive only half the number he had requested. Two were type IXB (U-109, U-123) and four were IXCs (U-66, U-125, U-128, U-130). As the boats were being released, U-128 could not be released on time since it had just been commissioned, and so Operation Paukenschlag would begin with only 5 boats. Dönitz sent the fleet off with orders to "beat the waters like a drum."

The Drumbeaters headed for the US East Coast guided by little more than guide books they had borrowed from one of the municipal libraries. Since the East Coast had been off limits for so long, there were no operational charts. U-123's mission began in New York Harbor and extended to Cape Hatteras, accompanied by U-125 and U-66.

The Cyclops, commanded by Leslie Webber Kersley, was the first to meet the Drumbeat fate on January 12, one day before the operation was to officially begin. The U-130 commenced with the second and third victims, the Norwegian steamer Frisco and the freighter Friar Rock, some miles off the coast of Nova Scotia. Most of the ships sunk during Operation Paukenschlag were cargo ships, as the Allen Jackson, an oil tanker that met a fiery fate and lost all but 13 of her crew. On January 28, the Kosmos II, a Norwegian whaling factory nearly intercepted U-123, but Commander Hardegen outran the freighter. Hardegen's last victim was the Malay, which was damaged but did not sink, excluding it from Operation Drumbeat's casualty list.
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Operation Drumbeat ended with a bang on February 6, 1942, after the U-130 sank the Panamanian steamer Halcyon with one hit. Altogether Operation Drumbeat accounted for 25 sunken ships and 156,939 tons of material. As the operation ended, the U-boat war had just begun.