You wouldn’t think it likely to find a Nazi U-Boat 25 miles off the North Carolina coast, but you’d be wrong…
After the discovery of the much sought after German U-Boat 576, researches got to work in finding out exactly what went on inside and how it reached its watery grave. Found near the shore line of North Carolina, studies have shown us an amazing and historical insight on what life was like for German Navy personnel. And what they found inside? Creepy…
Not Just A European Conflict
World War Two is usually seen as mainly a European and Pacific conflict, due to where a vast majority of the fighting took place. The recent discovery though, of a sunken German submarine off the eastern coast of the United States, reminds us of just how global this conflict truly was.
Years Of Exploring
The story of the discovery begins back in 2009, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began their search for a German submarine U-576 that was sunk in July 1942. After years of exploring, the vessel was finally located in 2014, around 35 miles off the shoreline of North Carolina.
Terrorizing The Allies
The scientists didn’t get their first actual look at the wreckage until August 24, 2016. In fact, this would be the first time in almost 74 years that anybody had actually laid eyes on the metal of the submarine that had intimidated Allied ships in WWII. The submarine was laying at a depth of 700 feet.
The wooden deck of the submarine has long since rotted away, however it still retains its characteristic look. The conning tower is visible at the center of the vessel as well as a powerful deck gun. Inside, one can only presume, is the final resting place of the long-dead bodies of the captain and its 44 crewmen rest inside its dark, cold interior.
The Battle Of The Atlantic
Now the big question I’m sure you’re all asking, is how did a German submarine end up submerged there? To know exactly what happened, we have to go all the way back to 1939, the year that both the Second World War and its longest continuous fighting effort, The Battle of the Atlantic, began.
Preventing Allied Ships
Germanys main goal of this naval conflict was to try and stop Great Britain and the USSR from receiving supplies from North America. So the six-year-long campaign centered on the Germans attempting to use their submarines in order to sink Allied shipping that was crossing the Atlantic.
These so called U-boats, short for unterseeboot, or “undersea boat”, were highly successful at the beginning of the conflict. Their method of attack was to emerge at night to fire torpedoes and then disappear quickly before escorting warships could respond. In fact, just in 1941 alone they managed to sink 875 Allied ships.
Life Wasn’t Easy
Despite the successes they were having, life on a U-boat definitely wasn’t easy. For each patrol, the crew could spend weeks at a time at sea, during which time they’d have to deal with freezing cold temperatures, constant alarms, submarine traps and generally a meager lifestyle confined to a cramped metal tube.
“No Showers, No Shaves”
As U-boat commander Harald Busch described in Hunt in the Atlantic, “On board there is no place to be comfortable, stretch your legs, and relax from your strenuous shift… There are no showers, no shaves, no getting out of your clothes for the entire time of the trip.”
111 Submarines Assigned
That’s what life would have been like for the ill-fated crew of U-576 when they entered the fray back in 1941. Coming out of the town of Saint-Nazaire on the west coast of Nazi-controlled France, the U-576 was one of 111 submarines assigned to the 7th U-boat flotilla.
New Anti-Submarine Technology
In fact, U-576 began operating in waters around England, Russia and Ireland, and unluckily failed to sink any ships in its first two patrols. This was probably because the Allies had increased the duration and amount of warships used in escorts and had added new anti-submarine technology, such as sonar, to its patrols. It was becoming increasingly apparent that the balance was shifting in its favor.
Consequently, in 1942, the German command decided to send some of its U-boat fleet across the Atlantic to attack ships off the North American coast. U-576 was among the first 16 submarines to take part in the so-called “Operation Drumbeat.”
The First Envoys
U-boat commander Reinhard Hardegen later recalled in his book, “We were to sail to America as the first envoys to hit a good number of merchant ships in different harbors all at the same time… We had to get the first strike right. The stronger the hit was, the more effect it would have.”
Hardegen turned out to be right. The results of the operation, which lasted from January to August 1942 were absolutely staggering: 609 ships that were carrying 3.1 million tons of supplies were sunk, which was around a quarter of all ships destroyed by Germany in the war. Amazingly though, just 22 U-boats were lost in the process.
American Shooting Season
Operation Drumbeat was so successful that it came to be known as the “American shooting season” among the German U-boat crews, given the ease with which they inflicted heavy losses on Allied shipping. The U-576 alone sunk four enemy vessels during its five patrols in 1942.
The U.S Responded
After many months of unrestricted submarine warfare, the U.S. finally responded. By May, merchant shipping was escorted by convoys and were protected by warplanes. Other such defensive measures soon followed, including a blackout of coastal areas to make it harder to spot the ships.
U-Boat Successes Dropped
These changes made it very difficult and risky for the U-boats to engage their targets. As U-576 reported to the German command in July, “Successes have dropped considerably. This is due to a drop in traffic (formation of convoys) and increased defense measures.”
Days later, the submarine was attacked by depth charges dropped from a warplane, resulting in the partial destruction of its major ballast tank which was used to help the submarine dive and surface. It seemed like a perfect time to head back to Europe, but on July 15, the captain spotted a target that he just couldn’t resist.
That target was a convoy of 19 merchant ships and five warships, which despite all the stacked odds, the captain of U-576 chose to engage. The submarine managed to sink one merchant vessel and damage two more, but it ironically was sunk by attacks from air and sea, sending the crew to certain death.
Today, the submarine rests 200 yards away from SS Bluefields which is the freight ship that it managed to sink before succumbing to its own watery grave. And while its perished sailors may be remembered on the wrong side of history, they were also ordinary men who left behind loved ones after fighting for their country.
[Featured image credit: oceanexplorer.noaa.gov & www.noaanews.noaa.gov]