U-123 Hardegen 21-Mar-1942
On the 6th of April Reinhard Hardegen on the famous “one two three” boat, U-123 returned for one devastating week. After skirting Newfoundland and Cape Hatteras the boat entered the region to the north of Bermuda both eastbound and westbound. Northeast of Bermuda on the 21st of March 1942 U-123 entered the area heading west. On the 22ndhe sank the US tanker Muskogee of 7,034 tons and two days later, on the 24thfollowed with the British ship Empire Steel of 8,138.
Captain Arthur Moore in his book “Careless Word, Needless Sinking,” tells the story of a photo of the Muskogee survivors on liferafts pleading the U-boat crew for help and how merchant mariners saw the photo in German magazine and recognized crewmates. Sadly the men were never seen again. On the 26th U-123 was inititally surprised by the US decoy ship USS Atik aka the Carolyn, and lost one man to a counter-attack before sinking the ship with the loss of all hands in a subsequent storm.
Two days after coming south from the Carolinas to off the Georgia coast he damaged the 7,989-ton tanker Esso Baton Rouge and the 9,264-ton Oklahoma. Proceeding south along the eastern coast of Florida to a position some thirty miles off West End Grand Bahama he sank in quick succession the Esparta on the following day (9th April), then two days later the tanker Gulfamerica off Jacksonville.
Immediately following this attack the boat was pinned down by an Allied plane and ships in an attack which would have led to the destruction of the U-boat by more persistent foes in almost any other theater at the time:
“After sinking Gulfamerica the boat was located in shallow waters by an aircraft which directed a destroyer to the position. At 09.17 hours six depth-charges were dropped on U-123 moving over the bottom at a depth of twenty meters and badly damaged her. The boat played ‘dead man’ and despite air bubbles escaping from damaged valves, no more depth-charges were dropped by the destroyer which left after one hour. Most of the damages could be repaired by the crew and the boat continued the patrol.”
To these successes he added the American-flagged Leslie, and the Korlsholm, a Swedish ship which began the war detained off Morocco. Given that Hardegen dispatched the Alcoa Guideen route home and the Liebreto and off Hatteras, his total bag for one patrol was eight ships sunk for 39,917 and three damaged for 24,310 tons.
On the way home U-123 again transitted Bermuda, this time eastbound from the 16th of April until the 20th, beginning to the northwest, going north of the island on the 18th, and exiting to the northeast. In the Bay of Biscay U-123 met with U-107 which was outbond to exchange a code book and information. U-123 returned to Lorient on the 2nd of May 1942. (Wynn, Vol. 1, p.99).
Hardegen, who is still alive, achieved the rank of Korvettenkapitän, though at the time he was Kapitänleutnant. Over his career he sank 21 ships for a total of 112,447 GRT and damaged four others for 32,516 GRT – he also sank one warship and damaged another. On 23 April 1942, following this patrol he was awarded the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves, and later the U-boat badge with Diamonds. A member of the crew of 1933 at the Naval Academy (Marineschule) in Mürwik, eastern Germany, he was only 30 at the time.
Hardegen actually began his career in the naval air force, but injuries sustained when he crashed as a pilot brought him to the U-boat arm in November 1939, at the outset of the war. His total command experience of five patrols of 240 days at sea on two submarines plus his longevity and accessibility have made Hardegen somewhat of a “darling” of U-boat research into attacks on the Americas, or at least the United States.
Hardagen’s patrols feature prominently in books such as Operation Drumbeat by Michael Gannon and Torpedo Junction by Homer Hickham, and The Fuhrer’s U-boats in American Waters by Gary Gentile (who accused Hardegen of doctoring his log). His feats are extolled on websites such as Sharkhuntersof which he is a member. By all accounts Hardegen is a personable and likeable commander and veteran – he was said to have tied the shoe laces of an old merchant mariner who visited him to meet the man who sank him.
Hardegen corresponded with his victims, and took part in two particularly tragic sinkings – that of the only battle-tested armed merchant cruiser which the Americans put forth (the Atik, AK 101 aka the Caroline, in which all members of the US Navy crew and one of Hardegen’s crew perished on a stormy night) and the Muskogee, whose desperate survivors were photographed by Hardegen’s crew but never seen alive again (photos from a German magazine surfaced in a POW camp for allies and survived the war) (Moore).
In short Hardegen came to symbolize the opening attack on the Americas in the way that Werner Hartenstein and Albrecht Achilles symbolized the daring attacks in the Caribbean theater, and that Carlo Fecia di Cossato would represent the ravaging of ships off the Bahamas. He would have to be included in the iconic skippers such as Herbert Werner in his autobiographical Iron Coffins and the skipper in the fictional film Das Boot, which was loosely based on the patrols observed by a war correspondent.
SOURCES: Gudmundur Helgason, Rainer Kolbicz, www.uboat.net, 2011, Kenneth Wynn, U-boat Operations of the Second World War, Volume 1 and Volume 2, 1997, Michael Gannon, Operation Drumbeat, Homer Hickham, Torpedo Junction, Gary Gentile, The Fuhrer’s U-boats in American Waters, Moore, Arthur, A Careless Word…a Needless Sinking: a History of the Staggering Losses Suffered By the U. S. Merchant Marine, Both in Ships and Personnel, During World War II, 1998