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On the morning of October 20, 1942 a U-boat set sail from the port of St. Nazaire in occupied France. Situated on the right bank of the Loire River estuary on the south coast of the big thumb of France, St. Nazaire was the home base to the men and ships of the 6th Unterseebootsflottille, commanded by KorvettenKapitan Wilhelm Schulz. The base, and especially the massive concrete submarine pens had been targeted numerous times in the last year by the RAF, and the surrounding waters were constantly being mined by British Wellington bombers, and swept by German minesweepers. In March 1942 British commandoes had staged an unsuccessful attack on the base, but still it remained hardly damaged.

The submarine that departed that gloomy day in October was a recently constructed type VIIC U-boat. It’s keel had been laid down the previous year on March 27, 1941 at the Blohm und Voss shipyards in Hamburg. A year later, on February 5, 1942, the new U-boat was commissioned into the Kriegsmarine, and after much hoopla placed under the command of a young naval officer, Oberleutnant Rolf Struckmeier, and assigned to the 5th Ausbildungsflottille in Kiel for training preparatory to entering the fleet.

The commander of the 5th Flotilla at the time, Kptlt Karl-Heinz Moehle, was a dedicated submariner and holder of the Knight’s Cross medal for valor. In 1940, shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, he had taken charge of U-123 and on his second patrol in the North Atlantic sank five ships in an attack on an Allied convoy that lasted over five hours. After the war he would be sentenced to five years in prison, not for that heroic deed, but for encouraging obedience to the infamous Laconia Befehl, an order issued by Admiral Doenitz in the aftermath of the Laconia incident. The Laconia, a British passenger liner, was sunk in the South Atlantic on September 12, 1942. Shortly after the sinking, Cpt. Hartenstein, the Captain of the U-boat sent out several radio calls, including an uncoded distress signal requesting assistance in picking up survivors and promising to cease hostilities. The first message was short and direct:

Sunk by Hartenstein British “Laconia”. Grid FF 7721 310 degrees. Unfortunately with 1,500 Italian POW’s. Till now 90 fished. 157 cubic meters (oil). 19 eels, trade wind 3, ask for orders.

The second un-encoded message, transmitted on 25 meter band, was desperate, and to men like Doenitz and Moehle, a serious breach of discipline:

If any ship will assist the ship-wrecked ‘Laconia’-crew, I will not attack providing I am not being attacked by ship or air forces. I picked up 193 men. 4, 53 South, 11, 26 West. – German submarine.

This must have infuriated Admiral Doenitz, because he promptly issued the following order:

1) Every attempt to save survivors of sunken ships, also the fishing up of swimming men and putting them on board lifeboats, the setup right of overturned lifeboats, the handing over of food and water have be discontinued. These rescues contradict the primary demands of warfare esp. the destruction of enemy ships and their crews.
2) The orders concerning the bringing in of skippers and chief engineers stay in effect.
3) Survivors are only to rescue, if their statements are important for the boat.
4) Stay hard. Don’t forget, that the enemy didn’t take any regard for woman and children when bombarding German towns.

Largely because of this order, Admiral Doenitz was charged with war-crimes after the war and tried at Nuremberg along with the other major Nazi war-criminals, and narrowly avoided being hanged.

For six months Struckmeier and U-608 trained under Moehle’s watchful eye, and underwent inspections and a battery of trials at Kiel designed to test the limits of his men and his boat. Finally on September 1, 1942 the boat was transferred to the combat flotilla in St. Nazaire, the 6th Unterseebootsflottille. On its first patrol in September, U-608 operating as part of a 12 boat Wolfpack, designated Vorwarts (Forward), was credited with two of the ten total sinkings. A 32 ship convoy, with two Canadian destroyers and four corvettes as escort, was first sighted by the Wolfpack on September 9, 1942 by U-584, but the Captain of U-584 lost them in the dark that night. U-96 picked them up the next day, and moved in, sinking two ships and damaging another. That night U-608 also arrived on the scene, and missed in its first attempt to torpedo a freighter. But the following night, Captain Struckmeier sank two stragglers, that had previously only been damaged. That patrol, their first, Struckmeier and crew received credit for the sinkings of The Empire Moonbeam, a British ship of 6,849 tons and the Hektoria, another British ship of 13,797 tons.

Now the U-608 was headed out on its second patrol. When the boat was past the breakwater, Captain Struckmeier turned over the watch to his second in command and retired to his cabin to open the special orders for the cruise. He poured himself a hot cup of ersatz coffee, and tore open the manila envelope, and might have missed the piece of scrap paper that fell out, but for the fact that it landed in his saucer. It was a small triangular piece of green paper with a cloth-like feel, and Struckmeier immediately recognized it as a corner torn from an American currency note. It had been folded into the triangular shape, in the manner that one would fold a piece of paper into an airplane. Upon closer examination, he could barely discern at the vertex of the two intersecting creases, that a Statue of Liberty face had been etched into the grain of the bill itself, adjacent to a dot surrounded by several concentric circles, work that could only have been accomplished by a clever forger.

Struckmeier refolded the dollar bill, and stuck it in his shirt pocket. He didn’t know exactly what to make of it, but when he read the heading on the first page of the orders it all came clear: New York Mine-laying Orders for U-608. He grabbed a bottle from the overhead shelf, and poured some brandy into his coffee, and began to read.


New York Minelaying orders for U 608.

I. Task:
  a) Extensive mining of area “Ambrose”. If this is impossible, mining to be carried out in “Alternative area Ambrose”. If no success with latter in spite of repeated attempts, mining to be completed in “Outer area New York” (See sketch).
  b) Enemy traffic is to be observed beforehand, so that mines can be laid inside specified area where greatest success can be expected. If observation is impossible of provides no information, mining to be carried out around “Ambrose Lightship” and S.W. of it.
  c) The commander is, under all circumstances to try with tenacity and energy to lay the mines as far in as possible where they promise most success, i.e. in “Ambrose” area. The alternative or outer areas are only to be mined when all attempts on the inner one have been smashed and further attempts to mine seem hopeless.

II. Geographical boundaries:
  a) Area “Ambrose” lays within following degrees:
  400 27′ N. 730 55′ W. 40 30′ N. 730 49′ W.
  400 28′ N. 730 45′ W. 40 23′ N. 730 54′ W.
  b) “Alternative area Ambrose” is bound on east and south by circumference of circle whose center is by light bell buoy 2A (400 30′ N. 730 65′ W.) and on the N.W. by a line from Long Beach (730 41′ W.) and from point on Jersey coast (400 23′ N.).
  c) “Outer area New York” lies between circles drawn from light bell buoy 2A with radius of 13 and 22 miles respectively.

III. Mine Material: 10 TM C mines.
  Settings – Period of effectiveness 60 days, period of delay 2 days, sensitivity 10 meters, 5 mines set to go off first run over 5 at fourth. 5 mines with red field, 5 with blue field. Mines set to fall to depth between 20 – 33 meters, minimum range 1,000 meters.

IV. a) Map D 455 to be employed.
  b) Black and green painted wreck buoy marked 3″ in position 400 25.4′ N. 730 52.1 W.
  c) See Standing Operational Orders 492 paragraph 2; 495 paragraph 2 “Operational Intelligence for Navigators” 687 – 42: 688 – 42.
  d) See Appendix.

V. Reports to be made as soon as possible after mining completed, by short signal, but at least 50 miles from mined area.
  Following code to be used:
  LT IQ = Mining of “Ambrose Area” completed.
  LT GO = Mining of “Alternative area Ambrose” completed.
  LT JR = Mining of “Outer area New York” completed.

The Captain sat for a moment, reflecting not on the difficult and deadly assignment, but thinking rather how he would inform the crew, wondering if he should mention the dollar bill at all. His palms were wet, and he felt the beat of the diesel engines inside his ear drums, and realized it was his own heart-beat that he was hearing. It would have been difficult enough, even if the orders were crystal clear, but this deception, this little dollar bill, this arrow pointing at the Statue of Liberty – was this what Germany was about? No, this was what the Nazis were about – sneaking around back-allies, whispers in the night, rule by terror and fear. What a great propaganda victory this would be for the Fuehrer and Dr. Goebbels – like the Reichstag fire that brought them into office and the fabricated attack by Poland that began the war. He could see the headline now in all the Berlin newspapers: U-BOAT DESTROYS STATUE OF LIBERTY!! He and his crew would nonetheless be Heroes of the Reich, placed on high pedestals for all Germans to admire, but all the rest of the world would detest them.

Struckmeier finished off the coffee in one swallow, and snatched the top sheet off the desk and left his cabin. He intended to go right to the Navigation Officer’s station, but he hadn’t quite gotten his sea-legs back yet, or perhaps the brandy had hit him already, and he lurched forward into the table. Gripping the edge of the table-top he said, “Pull the map for sector C-A, Hans. Sofort.”

“Ja wohl, Herr Kapitan.” snapped the young officer. “Immediately.”

He laid out the sector map on the table and took the tiny paper from his pocket and felt that the eyes of the whole crew were on him. With the tip held fixed on Liberty Island, he rotated the paper until one of the creases pointed to a course that avoided any land masses. As he had suspected there was only one way in, straight in – he took the ruler and drew a heavy vertical line through the statue, all the way to the bottom of the map. He held his finger on the spot where the line met the bottom, and tapped twice to emphasize the location.

“Plot our course to this point right here,” he said. “We don’t have to be there until the 9th, so play it safe. I’ll be in my cabin.”

“Ja wohl, Herr Kapitan, and we’ll need to allow for the bad weather.”

“Yes,” he replied. “At least we have that.”

When he got back to his cabin, Struckmeier shouted for the cook. He needed coffee, lots of it, if he was going to get an 865 ton U-boat, that was 67 meters long and 6.2 meters wide, inside New York Harbor without being detected. He knew the orders came right from the top, from the Grand Admiral himself. Doenitz had said many times, and even been quoted in the papers saying that he believed a U-boat could steam right into any American harbor on the surface at night, without so much as a challenge. But why now, he asked himself?

Struckmeier had no illusions about the war. He had heard the latest reports from North Africa and Stalingrad on the BBC and the American broadcast stations. Oftentimes they were the only stations they could receive out at sea. But the strategy was working better than ever. When the U.S. first entered the war there was some question of whether mine-laying would be possible on the U.S. coast but the U-boat Captains quickly figured out that there were two strips, divided by a channel of water 35-50 meters deep, that were suitable for mining, that ran from the Fire Island light ship, east of New York in the north, all the way to Cape Canaveral in the south. All of the large ports on the US east coast had already been mined, and they were seeing good results. Nor was the laying of mines prejudicing in any way the U-boat attacks, which continued virtually uninterrupted, because mines were generally layed in shallow water where submarines could not operate anyway. Over 170 ships had been sunk off the Atlantic Coast in just the last 6 months, many within sight of shore. Why risk entering a major port now, when the Americans had installed anti-submarine nets in most of their ports and shore batteries all along the east coast?

In New York, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia himself doubted if even Coney Island could be defended if push came to shove, but an anti-submarine net had been strung from Norton’s Point on Coney Island to Hoffman Island. In fact on December 10, just three days after Pearl Harbor was struck, a notice went out to all shipping in the area that “A mined area covering the approaches to New York Harbor has been established. Incoming vessels will secure directions for safe navigation from patrol vessels stationed off Ambrose Channel Entrance.” Struckmeier wasn’t worried about the mines or even the nets though. He knew that New York was all about access, and he had divers on his ship who could punch a hole in the nets. What bothered him was what was positioned at either end of the net.

There were two gate tenders stationed at the submarine nets in New York, designated by the Coast Guard YNG-3 and YNG-39. YNG-3 was an observation platform with visual signalling equipment and a detachment of sailors armed with Thompson submachineguns. YNG-39, on the other hand, was a fully equipped gun-boat fixed in the harbor, and only able to be moved with the aid of tug-boats. Equipped with the latest electronic anti-submarine detection devices and connected directly to Harbor Entrance Command at Fort Wadsworth, YNG-39 also had a 50 caliber machine gun, 2 – 30 caliber machine guns, and a 1 pounder cannon. Though U-608 had an 88 mm naval gun and a 20 mm anti-aircraft gun, it was not equipped to fight a prolonged battle with any kind of shore installation. 4 bow and 1 stern torpedo tubes were its primary armament, and beneath the waves was the only safe place for a submarine to be.

The transit across the Atlantic Ocean went extraordinarily smoothly, and the crew was revitalized, and in excellent spirits. Sailing south from St. Nazaire along the French coast, they loitered in sector BF for two days charging their batteries at night, and listening for any last minute radio instructions. Each day they ran submerged, slowly picking their way through the Bay of Biscay that the RAF mined regularly. On October 24 they had cleared the Spanish coast and just entered open water when they sighted an American Battleship sailing with a lone Destroyer Escort on a course of 240 degrees at medium speed. Contact was lost immediately, however, and after searching for a couple days they resumed course 270 degrees, due west on October 27.

For five more days they sailed due west, sticking to the B sectors on the map, shadowing the main merchant route from Bristol in England to Halifax in Newfoundland. On November 1 they slipped down south into sector CD 13 and were now due east of New York City. Finally on November 5, they reached sector CB, and found themselves south of Newfoundland in the middle of a gale, where they charged their batteries to the fullest, and began to skirt the areas of high traffic. Struckmeier didn’t want to stir up the hornet’s nest just yet. The rough seas would play havoc with the American ASDIC equipment and make their periscope harder to spot, but their best hope was to remain undiscovered.

[End of Part 1]


According to the Kriegstagebuch, or daily log kept by Captain Struckmeier, the U-608 completed her mining operations according to orders, on November 10, 1942 and the next day was granted freedom of movement along the whole American coast to Newfoundland, for refueling and supplying.

On the 15th of November, U 608 sank a 5,000 ton freighter in sector BB 8898 on course 160. They returned to port, entering St. Nazaire on December 9, 1942 and didn’t go out again that month.

It was not an entirely uneventful return cruise though. Several interesting things happened to U-608 that I hope to further investigate. Immediately after laying the mines in New York, they were granted permission to explore the east coast of North America to Newfoundland. Interestingly enough, another German submarine had dropped off a spy in Canada, on the very same night as the New York operation.

I found a little information about this particular incident at the US Naval Historical Center’s online website:

“Werner Janowski, an agent landed on the coast of [southern shore of the Gaspe Peninsula, Quebec] Canada [by U-518] early in November [9 Nov.] 1942, who was caught within a few hours through his stupidity in throwing away a box of Belgian matches in a hotel room and otherwise arousing the suspicions of civilians– to voluntary surrender on the part of the agent.”

[Reference http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq114-1.htm%5D

Later U-608 ran out of fuel in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and drifted for several days, this occurring shortly after they had met with another ship to take on “air torpedoes” from a ship returning to port.


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