Merchant Mariners, the Second Battle of the Atlantic, and the 75th Anniversary of VE Day

Sal Mercogliano
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May 8, 2020
Depiction of the sinking of the freighter Robin Moor on May 21, 1941. Credit: American Merchant Marine Museum

By Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D. – In his autobiography, The Second World War, Winston Churchill said of the Battle of the Atlantic, “The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.”

Beginning on September 3, 1939, with the sinking of the liner SS Athenia by U-30 to the loss of the collier SS Black Point on May 5, 1945, off Rhode Island by U-853 – and its destruction at the hands of an American hunter-killer group of four ships and two blimps the following day – the world’s merchant marines found themselves on the front line of the Second World War. This week marks the 75th Anniversary of the conclusion of the Battle of the Atlantic that involved many of the world’s navies and merchant marines.  

For the United States, much like in 1917, attacks upon its commercial and private shipping preceded its entrance to the war. SS City of Flint was a product of the vast shipbuilding program established by the United States during the First World War, to meet the shortages in shipping brought upon by the conflict. Starting in 1914, the British merchant marine was focused on supporting their nation and its allies, and the German merchant marine, then the second largest in the world, sought refuge from the Royal Navy. The United States had to expand its shipping base to meet its trade requirements. As part of this, the U.S. Shipping Board established four government yards to construct prefabricated vessels. The largest was on the site of the current Philadelphia International Airport. Back then it was American International Shipping, or more commonly referred to as Hog Island.  

 At the start of World War Two, the United States Lines’ City of Flint was in Europe. On October 9, she was stopped by the German pocket battleship Deutschland. The Nazi raider and her sister-ship Graf Spee were attacking shipping in the northern and southern Atlantic, respectively. Even though City of Flint was a neutral vessel, the Germans declared her cargo contraband and sailed the ship to the neutral port of Murmansk in Russia. The prize crew attempted to sail her to Germany but ran afoul the Royal Norwegian Navy. Norway returned the ship to her American crew and allowed her to sail to the US after unloading. 

 The first American loss of life and sinking of a ship in the Battle of the Atlantic occurred as far away from that ocean as possible. Over a year later, MS City of Rayville, another ship built under the World War One program in the United States, completed loading a cargo of lead ore in Southern Australia and was en route to New York, via Melbourne when she sailed into a German minefield. The Battle of the Atlantic was not a conflict for control of that specific body of water, but a campaign to interdict and disrupt oceanic trade that ended in Great Britain. The Germans used an array of weapons, including disguised commerce raiders. Pinguin, one of these raiders had outfitted a captured steamer, Passat as an auxiliary minelayer, and it was the latter that laid the field of 60 mines off the northeast coast of Tasmania. 

 MS City of Rayville struck a mine at 7:47 PM on November 8, 1940, within sight of Cape Otway lighthouse. The explosion and SOS led local fishermen to the scene to assist the stricken vessel. The ship sank in 35 minutes. Third Engineer Mack B. Bryan of Randleman, North Carolina returned to his quarters for some belongings but did not reappear, the first of nearly 9,500 deaths in the US merchant marine. The loss of City of Rayville was followed by 732 other American merchant ships in the Second World War, with most of them supporting the Battle of the Atlantic. 

 The following year, another Hog Islander, SS Robin Moor, found herself stopped and challenged by the submarine U-69 in the Atlantic, 750 miles west of Freetown, Sierra Leone. By this time, May 21, 1941, the Germans had already been through their First Happy Time. It started in July 1940 when U-boats could operate from new bases on the western coast of France and directly interdict the ships coming into the Western Approaches of the British Isles. The British responded with the establishment of permanent escort groups, new technologies – such as sonar, radar, and hedgehogs – and hurriedly constructed escort vessels including the 294 Flower-class corvettes. 

As German losses mounted, they shifted their submarines into newer operating areas, far from Allied escorts, such as the gap between Brazil and West Africa. SS Robin Moor was en route to Cape Town, South Africa from New York City and marked with flags of the United States, then a neutral nation. This did not stop Kapitänleutnant Jost Metzler, on this third war patrol, from ordering Captain Edward Myer to move his crew and passengers (including one child) into the ship’s four lifeboats and abandon the vessel. Metzler provided some food before using his stern tube to torpedo the ship. He later surfaced and fired 39 rounds from his deck gun to finish off Robin Moor. All those in the lifeboats were rescued. 

President Franklin Roosevelt accused the Germans of piracy, but he did not go as far as to announce this as an act of war. He stated, “We are not yielding and we do not propose to yield.” In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson, who Roosevelt served under as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, used the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare and the loss of ten American ships and death of 64 crew members as the basis for a declaration of war. It would only be after a German U-boat fired a torpedo at the destroyer USS Greer and German aircraft sank the freighter SS Steel Seafarer delivering cargo to British forces in Egypt via the Red Sea, did President Roosevelt accuse the German submarines of being rattlesnakes and their crew’s pirates. The US Navy and merchant marine found themselves in an undeclared naval war on the Atlantic, but that nebulous state only lasted a few months.  

It would take the Japanese assault on America, with attacks on bases in the Philippines, Guam, Wake, Midway, and the Hawaiian Islands, along with an onslaught of Japanese submarines – I-Boats – off the west coast of the United States, for the nation to enter the war. Even then, it was Germany who declared war on the US a few days later. With the Hawaiian Islands and West Coast under attack by Japanese submarines, starting with the loss of SS Cynthia Olsen on December 7 and SS Emidio on December 20 off Cape Mendocino, the United States focus was in the Pacific and protecting trans-Atlantic convoys to Europe. American forces secured these areas, and troop convoys departed for forward areas guarded by phalanxes of destroyers. 

In the First Battle of the Atlantic in 1917-1918, the United States similarly surged its destroyer force across the Atlantic to make the fight in the Western Approaches. The Germans, having to sail either around Great Britain or through the English Channel focused on this area. It was not until mid-1918, nearly a year after American entry in the war, that the first German U-cruisers made their appearance off the East Coast of the United States. These attacks were meant to draw off American ships and harass shipping. In early 1942, the Americans expected the Germans to repeat their initial performance of the First World War, hence the dispatch of American destroyers overseas to Halifax, Iceland, and Europe. 

Commerce warfare is by nature asymmetric and the Germans continually adopted their tactics and strategy to the defenses of their enemy. As the Allies mounted better defenses of the convoys, they refined their wolfpack tactics – the subject of the upcoming Tom Hanks’ movie Greyhound. The Germans also sought vulnerabilities in the Allied shipping and the one that materialized in early 1942 was on the east coast of North America.  

Known as Operation Drumbeat, German Admiral Karl Dönitz dispatched all his available long-range submarines, five Type IXs to initiate Paukenschlag. Referred to as the Second Happy Time, the Germans, later reinforced by other boats, executed a second Pearl Harbor off the American coast. With American destroyers occupied, US Navy Vice Admiral Adolphus Andrews, the commander of the Eastern Sea Frontier, failed to develop a coherent defense. With no interlocking convoy system, the Germans were able to sink over 2 million tons of shipping, 397 vessels. As the Americans responded, the U-boats, thanks to resupply submarines – Milch Cows – moved into the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea.  

Once those areas were under convoy and air protection after mid-1942, the Germans shifted into the air gap in the middle of the Atlantic. It was during this period in late 1942 to May 1943 that the large convoy battles were waged. While the Germans were able to assemble massive wolfpacks to deal with them, the Allies were able to surround each of them with escorts, along with Hunter-Killer groups and provide aircover from escort “Jeep” carriers and long-range Liberator bombers. These, along with new technologies, breakthroughs in tracking and intelligence due to the Enigma codebreaking effort, allowed the Second Battle of the Atlantic to swing to the Allies favor in May 1943, with the destruction of 34 U-boats in the Atlantic that month.  

This Victory in Europe Day, it is important to remember that it would have been impossible for the western Allies to storm ashore in Normandy on June 6, 1944, as Tom Hanks depicted in Saving Private Ryan. Or for the Soviets to mount their summer offensive supplied with Lend-Lease trucks and fuel. With the Allied landings, the German U-boat naval bases in France were isolated and they returned to bases in Germany. Once the U-boats were suppressed, the never-ending flow of personnel, equipment, and supplies could move across the world’s oceans to Europe.  

This victory came with great cost. A scene in the 1943 Humphrey Bogart movie, Action in the North Atlantic, features a multi-national convoy formed up in Halifax for the dreaded Murmansk run to Russia. Similarly assembled from all over the world, the nation’s merchant marines challenged German U-boats and the Luftwaffe. Over 3,500 merchant ships were lost along with 36,000 merchant seamen, 175 warships, and 36,200 sailors. They represented most of the Allies in the Second World War – the United States, Great Britain, Canada, India, Norway, Soviet Union, the Netherlands, Denmark, and China. At the end of the war, the United States, which possessed the largest merchant marine in the world and transported over half of the world’s cargo, released over a thousand vessels to restock the commercial fleets of its allies.  

Today, mariners from nation’s around the world face many challenges. Threats range from storms that have seen entire crews perish, as in the case of SS El Faro, to pirate attacks and high jacking (illustrated in Captain Phillips, portrayed, again, by Tom Hanks). The greatest threat today is from another invisible enemy, COVID-19. Across the world, over a hundred thousand crewmembers are trapped on their vessels due to the shutdown in international travel. Yet, they continue to perform their jobs, maintaining the world’s supply chain just as they did 75 years ago this week. This May 8, V-E Day, we should remember those mariners and sailors who put their lives on the line to get the cargo through and realize that similar challenges remain in both times of war and peace. 

Salvatore R. Mercogliano is an associate professor of History at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina and teaches courses in World Maritime History and Maritime Security.

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