A sonar image shows U-576 on the bottom of Atlantic off the North Carolina coast
A World War II German U-boat, sunk during the Battle of the Atlantic more than 72 years ago, has been discovered off the coast of North Carolina, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Tuesday.
The German sub, the U-576, was found at the bottom of the Atlantic 30 miles off Cape Hatteras and just 240 yards from an American merchant ship, the merchant tanker Bluefields, which was part of a 24-ship U.S. convoy heading from Virginia to Key West, Florida, on July 14, 1942.
“This is not just the discovery of a single shipwreck,” said Joe Hoyt, chief scientist of NOAA’s Office of Marine Sanctuaries expedition, which found the vessels. “We have discovered an important battle site that is part of the Battle of the Atlantic. These two ships rest only a few hundred yards apart and together help us interpret and share their forgotten stories.”
The story of U-576 was is the more tragic of the two wrecks.
Bluefields did not sustain any casualties during the sinking, but all 45 crew of the U-boat were lost.
Commanding U-576 that July day was Kapitanleutnant Hans-Dieter Heinicke. According to documents from the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, where the wrecks rest, Heinicke had radioed back to commanders in occupied France on July 13 to say the U-boat was damaged and heading back to Germany after a month-long patrol without success against Allied shipping.
A U-boat and its American prey haunt Gulf of Mexico
As U-576 began that journey home, it ran across convoy KS-520, with 19 merchant vessels and five escorts, on the afternoon of July 14, according to the documents.
Heinicke, who was on his fifth U-boat patrol with relatively little success against Allied shipping, saw a chance for redemption.
“In spite of his damaged ship, Heinicke decided to attack at all costs,” a history from the sanctuary reads. “However, at 4:00 pm just before he could fire his torpedoes, one of the Coast Guard cutters picked up a sonar contact. The Coast Guard crew dropped three depth charges, followed by five more 10 minutes later.”
But Heinicke pressed his attack, firing off four torpedoes about 4:15 p.m.
“The U-576 sank the Nicaraguan-flagged freighter Bluefields and severely damaged two other ships. In response, U.S. Navy Kingfisher aircraft, which provided the convoy’s air cover, bombed U-576 while the merchant ship Unicoi attacked it with its deck gun,” the NOAA release reads. The sub sank in minutes.
Two NOAA research vessels, the Okeanos Explorer and SRVX Sand Tiger, participated in the search for the wrecks, which were found and verified in August, NOAA said.
The wreck site is considered a war grave and protected by international law.
“Few people realize how close the war actually came to America’s shores,” David Alberg, superintendent of NOAA’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, said in a statement. “As we learn more about the underwater battlefield, Bluefields and U-576 will provide additional insight into a relatively little-known chapter in American history.”
On this day in 1918, a German U-boat submarine fires the last torpedo of World War I, as Germany ceases its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare.
Unrestricted submarine warfare was first introduced in World War I in early 1915, when Germany declared the area around the British Isles a war zone, in which all merchant ships, including those from neutral countries, would be attacked by the German navy. To confront the overwhelmingly superiority of the British navy, the Germans utilized their most dangerous weapon, the stealthy U-boat submarine. A string of attacks on merchant ships began, culminating in the sinking of the British ship Lusitania by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915. The attack on the Lusitania—which killed 1,201 people, including 128 Americans—sparked the ire of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who demanded an end to German attacks against unarmed merchant ships. Over the next year, the German navy reluctantly limited the practice at the urging of the country’s government, who feared antagonizing the U.S. and provoking its intervention in the war against Germany.
At the beginning of 1917, however, naval and army commanders managed to convince Kaiser Wilhelm II of the need to resume the unrestricted submarine policy, claiming that unrestricted U-boat warfare against the British at sea could result in a German victory by that fall. On February 1, Germany resumed its submarine attacks on enemy and neutral shipping interests at sea. Two days later, Wilson broke diplomatic relations with Germany; on April 6, 1917, the U.S. formally entered World War I on the side of the Allied powers.
The hope that Germany—despite the deadlock on the battlefields of the Western Front—could win the war by naval warfare persisted until the last months of the war, growing fainter with the Allied resurgence in France and Belgium in the summer of 1918 and the deepening discontent and frustration with the war on the German home front, as well as among its soldiers and sailors. In mid-October 1918, as the German government grappled with how to obtain an armistice without damaging Germany’s chances to obtain favorable peace terms and its army commanders contended with the dire situation at the front, Admiral Reinhardt Scheer dealt the final blow to Germany’s U-boat strategy, ordering all his navy’s submarines to return to their German bases.
The final German torpedo of World War I was fired in the Irish Sea on October 21, sinking a small British merchant ship, the Saint Barcham, and drowning its eight crewmen. In a measure of the characteristic aggression of German submarine warfare, a total of 318 merchant seamen had been killed that month alone. Now, however, the German submarines returned home, leaving the entire strategically important Belgian coast firmly under Allied control.