What These Ghostly Shipwrecks Tell Us About the Atlantic War
An underwater discovery highlights how close Nazi U-boats came to U.S. shores
On Oct. 21, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the discovery of a remarkable pair of shipwrecks off the North Carolina coast.
In an area long known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” for the many vessels lost there, the crew of NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer located both the hunter and prey from a forgotten battle.
The NOAA vessel mapped and sonar-imaged the German submarine U-576 and its victim, the freighter Bluefields. Both vessels lie on the bottom of the ocean, a mere 240 yards apart from each other. These are war graves—and in need of protection from looters.
The waters earned their grim nickname from the dangerous storms and shallow reefs that harassed shipping for centuries. But early in World War II, naval warfare outdid nature in harming sailors and ships.
Within sight of American soil, German U-boats attacked Allied shipping during a little-known but highly effective campaign during 1942.
Before the United States awoke to the danger, German U-boats boldly sank targets from Long Island to the Gulf of Mexico, sometimes using the bright lights of coastal towns to help spot their prey.
U-576, a Kriegsmarine Type VIIC-class submarine, carried 45 men and 14 torpedoes within its 220-foot length. She displaced 871 tons submerged.
Though U-576 could steam some 8,500 nautical miles from occupied France to the American West Coast, the distance severely stretched man and machine. The Type VII subs Germany sent to North American shores carried diesel fuel, steamed on a single engine and crammed provisions into every available interior space.
Not much larger than the sub that sunk her, Bluefields was a typical working freighter of the era.
Built in a Wisconsin shipyard in 1917, she carried war material during World War I. Later, she passed through a variety of corporate hands during the 1920s and 1930s, hauling bulk cargo on the Great Lakes. By the summer of 1942, Bluefields acquired a Nicaraguan home port.
Ready … and not
Germany’s declaration of war on the U.S. on Dec. 11, 1941, four days after Pearl Harbor, set the stage for the two ships’ fatal encounter. Germany was ready for the battle—and the U.S. was not.
Nazi submarine chief Adm. Karl Dönitz sought to choke Great Britain by attacking Allied shipping—not only on the high seas but close to the U.S. homeland. Although the Reich could only deploy five long-range Type IX subs to the East Coast, Dönitz ordered them to sea in Operation Paukenschlag, or “Drumbeat.”
In mid-January 1942, the U-123 sank two ships off Long Island and Sandy Hook, while several U.S. destroyers rode at anchor in New York harbor. Twenty-three Allied ships went to the bottom off the East Coast during the first phase of Operation Drumbeat.
But as late as March, American naval and civilian authorities took little action to protect shipping. Navy chief Adm. Earnest King focused on the Pacific war, while Rear Adm. Adolphus Andrews—in charge of the naval defenses along the East Coast—made do with laughably inadequate resources.
Andrews had only 23 ships for his whole command, including seven Coast Guard cutters and two gunboats launched in 1905.
The admirals rejected the idea of grouping ships in convoys—a tactic that would later become routine—believing it made the vessels better targets for U-boats.
The Navy had also invested little in either anti-submarine or convoy escort vessels.
Civilian ignorance compounded the Navy’s troubles. Merchant captains continued to sail along known peacetime routes, and continued to operate with running lights on—illuminating their vessels for miles.
Coastal cities refused blackouts, fearing the effect on tourism and businesses.
As Operation Drumbeat’s depredations grew, the U.S. government tried subterfuge. A propaganda campaign instructed civilians not to discuss maritime traffic with the phrase “loose lips sink ships.”
Whether or not German spies gained much information from sailing schedules, the propaganda served another purpose—it kept Americans in the dark about shipping losses, in order not to cause panic.
Tide against the drumbeat
It was July 15, 1942, and Kapitänleutnant Hans-Dieter Heinecke did not command a healthy sub.
U-567 was just off North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras, but the submarine’s main ballast tank took damage—a cruise-killing injury that required a return to her home port in France.
That’s when the U.S. convoy KS-520 came into sight. Bluefields sailed in the convoy along with 18 other merchant ships—and five naval vessels—for a seven-day trip from Norfolk to Key West.
By this time, the Navy was aware of the U-boat threat. Still under-equipped and learning on the job, the Navy successfully sank seven U-boats in American waters before KS-520 departed.
After U-567’s four previous patrols—all of them disappointing—spotting KS-520 surely came as a relief. Heinecke and his crew ambushed the convoy, attacking with four torpedoes.
Two torpedoes struck the freighter Chilore, while another hit the convoy’s flagship—the tanker J.A. Mowinckel. The last torpedo struck Bluefields.
Though Chilore and Mowinckel survived, Bluefields sank within minutes. Other vessels rescued the sinking ship’s crew.
That’s when U-576 suddenly surfaced amid the convoy—perhaps its damaged ballast tank proved to be its undoing. Navy armed guards aboard the freighter Unicoi opened fire with the ship’s deck guns, and two escorting Kingfisher seaplanes dropped depth charges.
Heinecke and all hands sank into the graveyard of the Atlantic.
The demise of the U-576 demonstrated the Navy’s growing competence in fighting the U-boat threat. With help from British anti-submarine warfare squadrons working out of New England and Trinidad, the Allies ensured a steady flow of oil and war materials to Britain and the Soviet Union.
By the end of 1942, the Nazi wolf packs were in retreat. By the end of 1943, the Allies defanged the submarine threat. Allied anti-submarine warfare aided by radar, sonar and spycraft pushed the U-boats back into their sub pens.
For more than 72 years, the dead of U-576 have rested in peace—with the submarine lying on the sea floor. Today, the U.S. and German governments want her to stay that way.
The way Berlin sees it, the wreck—along with other “formally Reich-owned military assets, such as ship or aircraft wreckages,” in the words of the German Foreign Office—remains property of the German government.
“The Federal Republic of Germany is not interested in a recovery of the remnants of the U-576 and will not participate in any such project,” the ministry declared in a statement to the NOAA.
American law supports Germany’s claim to U-576 and will likewise not take steps to interfere with the shipwreck.
Such protection is vitally needed, as the wrecks are targets for treasure-hunters. U-352, another German wreck off the coast of North Carolina, has already suffered damage from looting.