Fort Tilden History - Nazi U-Boats Attack New York Shipping!

Nazi U-Boats Attack
New York Shipping!

Updated: November 14, 1999
Introduction
Although one would think that the New York Harbor was always safe from a foreign military invasion, there have been times in recent history when enemy forces operated just outside of the harbor.  In World War 2, the Battle of the Atlantic came to the shores of America.

Background
The Germans had planned an invasion of the New York Harbor as early as 1899 when the idea of a joint Army-Navy assault of New York Harbor involving the landing of two to three battalions of infantry and one battalions of engineers on Long Island was envisioned.  After seizing New York, the troops would then split and proceed north to Boston and south to Norfolk.  This plan never materialized for Germany and the Kaiser.

U-boats actually conducted operations in American waters during World War 1.  During this time, the German submarine U-156 sunk a vessel 10 miles offshore of Fire Island, Long Island. Patrol aircraft and blimps from the Rockaway and Montauk Naval Air Stations conducted routine patrols in these waters, but only during daylight hours.  It is rumored that the twin 6-inch gun battery named West Battery (later renamed Battery Kessler ) opened fire on what was believed to be a German submarine.  No corroborating information has been discovered yet to support this rumor, but German submarines were in fact in the area during that time period.

A steel net was sunk across the Verrazano Narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island to keep German submarines out of the inner harbor.  German submarines did plant mines around Sandy Hook, and 16 tug boats based at Staten Island were turned into minesweepers. "Working in pairs, they swept the ocean every day for 100 miles out from Sandy Hook, finding and exploding a large number of floating mines". (See Ref 3)

On December 16, 1917, the pilot boat named "Pilot", tangled with the submarine net and was rammed and sunk by the Steamer "Berkshire" of the Merchants and Miners Line.

An aircraft bomber offensive against the United States was envisioned by Hitler in 1940.  This plan involved the use of the long-range Messerschmitt Me-264 "America Bombers" based out of the Azores.  This plan also failed to materialize, as the Nazis never captured the Azores and only built one Me-264 aircraft.

The U-boats Attack
In 1941, Admiral Doenitz, Commander-in-Chief of U-boats, believed that "a U-boat could steam directly into the throat of New York Harbor, on the surface , at night, without being challenged. As for the nets and shore batteries, he doubted their effectiveness, if they even existed" (Ref 1, page 71).  This statement was partly true in 1941.  The effectiveness of the harbor defenses at this time was limited by the lack of radar, hydrophones, and the magnetic detection loops that would be added in mid-1942.  These overdue improvements in coastal defense were implemented in a rush after German submarines had already begun their attacks in American coastal waters.  After America entered World War 2 on December 7, 1941, Doenitz implemented his plan named "Operation Drumbeat", by launching submarines to attack the United States on December 12, 1941.

On December 10, 1941, a notice to mariners was issued stating 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".  Mayor Fiorello La Guardia wondered "if the Republic could even guarantee the defense of Coney Island".  Just as in WWI, a submarine net was again erected at the Narrows from Norton's Point in Coney Island to Hoffman Island.  The nets and booms were laid by the US Navy Net Depot, Bayonne, NJ. 

The vessels YNG-3 and YNG-39 were stationed at the nets and had no propulsion of their own, so they were moved by tugs.   Each had a power generator for electricity and steam.  The YNG- 39 was equipped with hydrophones for underwater listening, ASDIC gear, and one magneto telephone to Hoffman Island.  This was connected in turn to the Harbor Entrance Command Post (HECP) at Fort Wadsworth and to Swinburne Island, the site of the Degaussing Section. The YNG-39 was also equipped with one 50 caliber and two 30 caliber machine guns, as well as a 1-pounder, or "heave to" gun.  The YNG-3 was equipped only with visual signaling equipment and armed with Thompson machine guns.

After crossing the Atlantic Ocean, the German U-boats began their assault on American shipping on  Jan 12, 1942, when Captain Hardegan and his crew of the U-123 sunk the "Cyclops" off Nova Scotia,  and the war entered New York waters on Jan 14, 1942, when the U- 123 sunk the"Norness" 60 miles off Montauk Point, Long Island.

On the next evening, the U-123 was following a parallel course westward along the south shore of Long Island, towards New York City.  The submarine almost itself beached on the Rockaway shore, as the crew did not have detailed charts of the area and did not anticipate the southward curve of the Rockaways.  From the reports of the area including the description of " a hotel, shore lights, and sand dunes backed by low, dark woods",  the U-123 probably came close to beaching on the shores of Fort Tilden or Jacob Riis Beach.  Fort Tilden is the only part of Rockaway with dunes backed by woods and the Bathhouse building a Riis Park does look like a hotel.  Later that night at 10 p.m., Captain Hardegan was viewing the lights of the city of New York at 330 degrees, and the Parachute jump and Wonder Wheel of Coney Island from the U- 123.  The men of Fort Tilden posted as lookouts in the 100 foot tall towers at  Fort Tilden and Arverne did not spot this target and no action was taken by the shore defenses or patrol aircraft.

The U-123 steered a course of 110 degrees, away from the city, until a ship was sighted at 1:40 a.m., Jan 15, 1999.  The British tanker "Coimbra" was sunk 61 miles east of Ambrose light, within sight of residents of the south shore of Long Island.  The U-123 turned south towards the Delaware bay, along the New Jersey shore.

The "Pearl Harbor" of the Atlantic
A few German U-boats were responsible for the sinking of a total of 397 ships in the first six months of 1942.  There were 171 ships sunk off the Atlantic Coast from Maine to Florida, 62 sunk in the Gulf of Mexico, and 141 in the Caribbean.  A total of 2,403 persons were killed and 1,178 were wounded.

Explosions could be heard and burning wrecks could be seen from the shoreline at night.  Dead bodies, debris and oil washed ashore on east coast beaches.  Despite all of this, blackouts were never implemented as they were along the coasts of England and Germany. This gave the German submarine crews a tremendous advantage in being able to spot cargo ships running along the coast at night with their lights extinguished.  A "dim-out" was eventually mandated, but even with the lights dimmed out, patrol boats were able see the glow of New York from a distance of 25 miles off shore.

A propaganda campaign utilizing slogans such as, "Loose Lips Sink Ships", was used to caution both soldiers and civilians to avoid discussing ship movements.  This was intended to hamper German agents from overhearing public conversations and passing this information on to U-boat crews. This popular campaign of posters (click here to see some) was merely a "feel good" measure as German submarines neither utilized or needed such intelligence.  The U-boats merely waited offshore,  intercepted ship radio transmissions to locate potential targets, and torpedoed any large ship that would come into view.

German Saboteurs Land in New York
As part of "Operation Pastorius" a team of four saboteurs were infiltrated into the United States by the submarine U-202 at Amagansett, Long Island on June 13, 1942 and another four landed in Ponte Vedra, Florida on June 16, 1942, all armed with explosives and plans to destroy factories, bridges, tunnels, powerplants and waterworks.  One member of the group that landed eventually turned himself over to the FBI and confessed the entire story. All eight saboteurs were arrested and six were executed in Washington D.C. on August 8, 1942.

U-boats lay mines in the NY Harbor
According to Samuel Eliot Morison's book "The Battle of the Atlantic", The German submarine U-608 laid 10 mines in the NY Harbor on November 10, 1942.  The first mine was discovered by a sweeper and the NY Harbor was closed for a period of two days, the only time the harbor was ever closed during the entire war.  This corresponds to data from the War Diary of the Eastern Sea Frontier dated November 13, 1942.

"At 1117 Hours, Minesweeper YMS-20 witnessed an under water explosion two miles from Ambrose in 40-25-42N; 73-44-00W, bearing 170 degrees True from minesweeper, range 300 yards.  YNS-20 considers explosion actuated by reverse pulse.  Column of water 200 feet high was seen.  EDC reports all Army mines have been accounted for.  Explosion evaluated as magnetic mine or old depth charge.  Port entrance closed until 1800/14 while twelve minesweepers operate in area".

The Navy Advances while the Army Clings to the Past
By mid-1942, the Navy eventually used both proven and new, innovative ways to defeat the U-boat menace.  Convoys, patrol aircraft, HF-DF radio intercept, and additional patrol craft made it more difficult for the submarines to attack shipping with the ease they enjoyed in early 1942.

Radio Direction Finding Stations were established at Jones Beach LI, Sea Isle City NJ, and Montauk LI.  These stations would home in on the Enigma-coded messages transmitted by the German U-boats.  Additional technology and resources such as sonobouys, magnetic loops, hydrophones, surface and B-17 aircraft mounted radar, and sightings by patrol aircraft, Civil Air Patrol volunteers, blimps, Pan Am Clippers, Eastern Airliners, and merchant vessels all aided to the intelligence effort of locating German U-boats.

The Army Coast Artillery Corp was doomed by it's turn of the century mission of defending the United States against the large naval vessels that never came.  New advances in radar and casemated gun positions were merely technological updates similar to the 1905 Taft Board additions of electrical lighting, communications and searchlights to the 1886 Endicott system of guns and concrete batteries.  By the end of the war, the technological advancements of long range aircraft, missiles, submarines, and atomic bombs led the Army to eliminate the Coast Artillery Corp and the Army's role in harbor defense.


Sources:
(1)"Operation Drumbeat, The dramatic true story of Germany's first U-Boat attacks along the American coast in World War II", Michael Gannon, Harper Perennial, 1990.

(2) War Diary of the Eastern Sea Frontier, US Navy

(3) "The Perils of the Port of New York", Jeanette Edwards Rattray.

(4)  History of the Fort Wadsworth HECP. (page 679)

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