Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Seventy-Five Years Ago: The Enemy Mines Our Coast

By Alan McGahey
Contributing Writer

The late winter and early spring had been good hunting months for Axis submarines in United States coastal waters.  But, as the U-boats' aim became deadlier through the months, so too did the attacks by the United States on the enemy.  As these blows became fiercer, the good fortunes of the submarines steadily declined until during the month of May there was only one attack on merchant shipping in District waters - and that an unsuccessful one. 
The enemy apparently now decided to change his tactics.  It is doubtful in any case that he could have continued indefinitely his torpedo attacks on our eastern shores.  Now he turned to a new and equally deadly weapon - the mine.  
 War Record of the Fifth Naval District, 1942, p. 259
The Esso tanker SS Robert C. Tuttle, carrying 152,000 barrels of crude oil, is partially submerged and on fire after striking a mine off the coast of Virginia Beach on the afternoon of June 15, 1942.  She was ultimately salvaged. (Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)   

On June 12, 1942, U-701, commanded by 29 year-old Horst Degen, sailed across the entrance to the Thimble Shoals Channel[1] releasing behind her a string of mines off Cape Henry before slipping quietly away into the ocean depths. There, death waited for the next convoy.  Degen, a seasoned and highly decorated naval officer, oversaw U-701's construction and commissioned her on June 16, 1941. The mine laying operation occurred during his third and last patrol.[2]

The approximate location of where SS Robert C. Tuttle struck a mine and sank on June 15, 1942. (gps-coordinates.net)
Three days later as citizens from Virginia Beach were concluding their day of sunbathing and enjoying the beach, the 12 ships and six escort vessels of Convoy KN-109 approached off the coast of Cape Henry. The evening air was shattered at 5:02 p.m. with a massive explosion on the starboard side of an American tanker, SS Robert C. Tuttle. Her engines stopped, her forward compartments filled quickly, and at 5:14 p.m., she slipped beneath the waves, bow down.[3] The second assistant engineer was blown overboard to his death, but the other 46 crewmembers were rescued. [4] At 5:33 p.m. another ship, SS Esso Augusta, struck a second mine. The explosion caused great damage at the stern but she remained afloat. [5] Esso Augusta was extremely lucky and suffered no causalities in the explosion.[6]
USS Bainbridge (DD 246), seen here in 1944. (Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)  
The reaction by the U.S. Navy was swift. Within 15 minutes, Navy patrol aircraft and a patrol blimp where overhead circling the area, suspecting that a U-boat had torpedoed the ships. The Coast Guard cutter Dione desperately searched for the U-boat but could not detect anything due to the noise of the ships’ propellers and the shallow water. Dione still raced out to sea several miles hoping to catch the U-boat before it could escape, dropping eight depth charges. During this time, the convoy escort USS Bainbridge (DD 246) reported a "mushy" sonar contact and proceeded to drop a pattern of eight depth charges of her own, which destroyed one of the mines.[7]
By this time, curious crowds, including many who had driven out from nearby Norfolk on hearing of the explosions, jammed the board walk and ocean front at Virginia Beach to watch with binoculars and field glasses the war tragedy being enacted offshore in the gathering darkness.  This was the first real taste of war for those who had been warned to expect it in the strategic Hampton Roads area, and the habitual gaiety of the resort was noticeably quieted by the realization of how close to shore the enemy had struck.
War Record of the Fifth Naval District, 1942, p. 265

The Royal Navy had assigned an armored trawler, HMS Kingston Ceylonite (FY 214), to the escort of Convoy KN-109.  Ceylonite was escorting the cargo ship SS Delisle while the minesweeper Warbler (ARS-11) was towing it. A massive explosion ripped through the Ceylonite followed by a second.  Most likely, the magazine exploded, sending her to the bottom in three minutes.  More than half of the 32-man crew died instantly. Several of the survivors required medical treatment at Portsmouth Naval Hospital, Portsmouth, Virginia and at Marine Hospital, Norfolk, Virginia.[8] Three of the British sailors, whose bodies washed ashore days later, rest at peace in Oak Grove Baptist Cemetery at Creeds, Virginia.[9]
Capsized and sinking off the Chesapeake Capes, SS Santore disappears beneath the waves after striking a German mine on June 17, 1942.  (Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)

On June 16, the Navy launched minesweeping operations from the US Coast Guard base at Yorktown. They were to sweep three areas, but unfortunately one area remained upswept and one area received two sweepings. On June 17, the “all clear” came and the ore carrier SS Santore left port to join with a new convoy. At 7:45 she hit the U-701’s remaining mine. Her port side was ripped away by a massive explosion and within three minutes she capsized and went down, taking three of her 47-member crew with her.[10]

Kapitanleutnant Degen enjoyed a short-lived victory on June 16, firing two torpedoes at a freighter, but missing. He later found a small armed trawler, USS YP-389, but decided not to waste a torpedo. He surfaced, engaged, and sunk the vessel with his 88mm deck gun. This was extremely risky, exposing his boat to aerial attack. Ten days later, U-701 torpedoed a Norwegian freighter, MV Tamesis, but she did not sink. The next day, U-701 attacked the tanker British Freedom but suddenly came under attack from the gunboat USS St. Augustine (PG 54), which dropped five depth charges, delivering damage to the U-boat’s conning tower gauges, electric motors and air circulators.

On June 28, U-701 surfaced for fresh air.  While on the surface, Degen spotted the SS William Rockefeller’s smoke on the horizon and submerged to hunt the prey. U-701 launched one torpedo that ignited the 136,000 barrels of “C” fuel oil aboard. However, before firing a second torpedo a Coast Guard Grumman J2F-5 Duck flew overhead, dropping four depth charges, followed by seven more from USCG Cutter CGC-470. U-701 remained undamaged, launching a second torpedo 12 hours later, sending Rockefeller to the bottom. The increased patrols by air and sea frustrated Degen’s efforts. On July 7, he surfaced at 3p.m. only to be spotted by an Army A-29 Hudson, which dropped three depth charges as U-701 tried to submerge. The first missed but the next two struck U-701 aft of the conning tower, cracking the pressure hull. The U-701 quickly started taking on water.  Degen gave the order to abandon ship.  He and 17 of his 46-member crew made it to the surface and climbed into life rafts dropped by the A-29.  After drifting for two days, Degen and six others were spotted by a patrolling ship and were rescued by the Coast Guard.  Afterward, the prisoners were taken to Naval Operating Base Norfolk, and then to Portsmouth Naval Hospital for treatment.

On July 9, 1942, Coast Guard Hall PH-2 seaplane comes to a rest near a life raft bearing survivors from U-701, which had been sunk by an Army aircraft two days before.  A Navy patrol blimp flies overhead. (Wikimedia Commons)
Concerning the rescue, Degan stated, "...we have escaped the "reaper" to whom we have already given our hand." 
War Record of the Fifth Naval District, 1942, p. 431
Four of the seven survivors of U-701 reach the wing of an awaiting Coast Guard seaplane on July 9, 1942. (Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)


               [1] Mark St. John Erickson, “German U-Boat Mine Blasts Brought Battle of the Atlantic to Hampton Roads,” Daily Press, June 16, 2014, accessed May 10, 2017, http://www.dailypress.com/features/history/our-story/dp-german-uboat-mine-brought-battle-of-the-atlantic-to-hampton-roads-20140616-post.html.

                [2] GuĂ°mundur Helgason, “Horst Degen,” U-Boat.Net, 2017, accessed May 10, 2017, http://uboat.net/men/commanders/197.html.

                [3] Robert H. Freeman, The War Offshore, 1942 (Ventnor, NJ: Shellback Press, 1991), 337-50.

                [4] James R. Powell and Alan B. Flanders, Wolf at the Door: The World War II Antisubmarine Battle for Hampton Roads (Richmond, Va.: Brandylane Publishers, 2004), 19.

                [5] The War Offshore, 337-50.

                [6] GuĂ°mundur Helgason, “Esso Augusta,” U-Boat.Net, 2017, accessed May 10, 2017, http://uboat.net/allies/merchants/ships/1814.html.

                [7] Edward Offley, The Burning Shore: How Hitler's U-Boats Brought World War Ii to America (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 187-89.

                [8] Wolf at the Door, 19-20.

                [9] Pete Vankevich, “Royal Navy commander remembers WWII fallen at British Cemetery memorial Service,” Ocracoke Observer, May 20, 2016, accessed May 20, 2017, https://ocracokeobserver.com/2016/05/20/royal-navy-commander-remembers-wwii-fallen-at-british-cemetery-memorial-service/.

                [10] Donald G. Shomette, Shipwrecks, Sea Raiders, and Maritime Disasters Along the Delmarva Coast, 1632-2004 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 278.

                [11] Paul M. Hudy, “Wreck of U-701,” NC-WreckDiving, 2015, accessed May 20, 2017, http://www.nc-wreckdiving.com/WRECKS/U701/U701.HTML.

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