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Why Nazi U-boats once terrified ships in the Gulf of Mexico

PortandTerminal.com, August 23, 2019

At the beginning of the Second World War, the island nation of Britain faced the grim possibility that it might be starved into defeat because of the German naval blockade of the country.

Food and fuel were strictly rationed in Great Britain in WW2 as there was a real chance that the Nazi’s blockade of the island nation would starve it to its knees.

Every drop of fuel in Britain was needed for military vehicles, but the blockade of the Atlantic by German submarines meant it was difficult to import fuel and practically everything else. The Mediterranean was all but closed to Allied shipping and the shipping routes around Cape Horn were long and extremely dangerous.

So strategically important was fuel rationing in Great Britain that it was not lifted until 9 years after the end of WW2 in 1954

Great Britain was in a desperate situation. It required more than a million tons of imported material each week in order to survive and continue to fight the Germans. Fuel was at the top of their list of needs if it was to continue fighting.

Sinking and disrupting American supply vessels suddenly became strategically important to the Germans to disrupt American efforts in supplying the British.

In early 1941, the United States was still not an active participant in World War II. It was however peripherally in the war effort though thanks to its efforts to supply oil and gasoline to besieged Great Britain.

British fighters relied on American higher octane fuel to give them a significant performance edge, higher power outputs, cooler running temperatures and increased reliability, over Axis engines

The United States stepped up to Britain’s need for fuel quickly. By the early 1940s, twenty percent of all tankers in the United States were put into service supplying oil and gas to Great Britain. By 1942, Britain imported 78% of its high octane aviation fuel and 80% of its other aviation fuel from the US. American fuel was keeping Britain fighting the Nazis.

Sinking and disrupting American supply vessels suddenly became strategically important to the Nazis to disrupt American efforts in supplying their besieged British enemy.

“Operation Drumbeat”

Painting of a German U-boat just having sunk an American cargo vessel

During the early years of World War II, the U.S. still wasn’t ready to defend its coasts. The technologically advanced Nazi U-boats exploited this weakness by tasking U-boats to enter into the Gulf of Mexico and sink tankers and other vessels that it might find there at will.

In total, 20 German U-boats sank 70 ships in the Gulf of Mexico between 1942 and 1943. The Germans called it “Operation Drumbeat” or the “Second Happy Time,” following up on previous successful attacks on Great Britain.

Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945, when he led Britain to victory in the Second World War, and again from 1951 to 1955

“The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril”

Prime Minister Winston Churchill

Of the 70 recorded attacks by Nazi U-boats in the Gulf of Mexico, 56 resulted in the sinking of the ship and the remaining 14 ships sustained damage but were not sunk.

First sinking in the Gulf of Mexico

In 1941 the Volusia was sold to Norlasco SS Co, New York and renamed Norlindo. The Norlindo was sunk in the Gulf of Mexico by a German U-boat in 1942

The first known German submarine to patrol the Gulf of Mexico was U-507, which attacked and sank Norlindo, on April 30, 1942. The seven officers and 21 crewmen on board did not have the time to launch the lifeboats and jumped overboard, but five men working in the after hold went down with the ship. The survivors were picked up from four rafts two days later. 

On 30 July 1942, the Robert E. Lee was hit by a German U-boat, steaming at 16 knots about 50 miles southeast of the entrance to the Mississippi River. 

An additional 69 vessels would be attacked by U-boats in the Gulf of Mexico, with another 55 of them going to the bottom. Many of the wrecks, including that of the Robert E. Lee, sunk by a U-boat in 1942 in the Gulf, have been discovered.

Sinking of Nazi U-boats in the Gulf of Mexico

The German U-boats didn’t always get their way though in the Gulf of Mexico. One Germany U-boat wreck (U-166) was discovered nearly a mile below the Gulf of Mexico, just off the Texas coast.

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